WASHINGTON — A Nigerian priest who oversees trauma care for people victimized by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria visited the United States this week to share his concerns about how Christians are facing lesser-known forms of societal discrimination because of their faith in Christ.
Father Joseph Bature Fidelis, the director of psychosocial support and trauma care in the Diocese of Maiduguri, Nigeria, attended a weekly meeting of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable presided by U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.
For the meeting, Fidelis prepared an “ask note” on behalf of his diocese calling for the U.S.'s intervention in the plight of Christians in Nigeria.
“A lot of it is going on and sometimes it's not so much known to the wider world,” Fidelis told The Christian Post in an interview Tuesday morning. “The response is very slow. So people continue to suffer for their faith.”
In Nigeria, thousands of Christians have been killed in recent years by extremist violence carried out by Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province in Northern Nigeria. Thousands more have been killed amid increased attacks carried out by radical Fulani herders against Christian farming communities in the Middle Belt of the country.
In addition to the extremism and communal violence, Fidelis stressed that Christians living in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria are facing other forms of persecution that are lesser reported in the media but are impacting Christians’ finances, jobs, education, retirement and ability to worship.
According to Fidelis, one particular phenomenon being seen in northern Nigeria is Christians being “deliberately deprived” of certain high-level positions in government.
“They are denied promotion or cannot access certain offices simply for being Christians,” Fidelis said.
Instances of political deprivation, he said, can be seen widely in Borno state and Yobe state.
In Yobe, Fidelis said Christians can’t be head of a government school.
“Muslims have been so much in power, so a lot of Christians will not be able to have access to certain positions,” he explained. “You don’t see it openly done. Let's say you go for an interview and five or six of you are supposed to qualify for a director position in a department. The Muslim is given preference over a Christian. That pattern has been there steadily. So you watch it and you see that certain positions are just not given to Christians.”
The priest said that in a place like Yobe, Christians might get lower-level local government positions but aren’t likely to be directors or commissioners.
“Maybe they appoint commissioners and out of 25 you have two Christians,” Fidelis detailed.
Fidelis believes that if a person is qualified and competent for a certain position, they should be given those positions no matter what their religious beliefs are.
Due to the recent increase in violence carried out by Boko Haram and Fulani radicals, Fidelis said many Christian traders have relocated from the north to safer regions of the country in the last several years.
But in areas such as Mubi, Potiskum and in some parts of Maiduguri where some Christians remain, market shops and buildings that have been reconstructed by the government after being destroyed by militants have been “allocated mainly to Muslims.”
“This again is peculiar because of the kind of attacks. Previously, Christians had shops in those states and people lived very well,” Fidelis recalled. “With the conflict, a lot of Christians moved out of the area, especially when they were being targeted. When they allocate those [rebuilt shops] now, they just allocate to very few Muslims.”
Fidelis believes that the government should make provisions for all who qualify to get shops no matter what their religion is.
“But that is not happening,” Fidelis stressed. “And if it's not happening, something is wrong. Even the few Christians who are still maintaining around should be given equal opportunity to have access to this and be able to promote their businesses. There's a lot of fear and those who are in charge of doing business do it based on religion.”
According to Fidelis, there seems to be a “deliberate plan to acquire land all over the country to give to herders who are predominantly Fulani Muslims.”
Fidelis criticized government policies that would create reserved communities for nomadic herders to live, grow and shepherd their cattle.
A Ruga (rural grazing area) policy promoted by the Buhari administration would prohibit open grazing but establish grazing reserves throughout the country.
“Ever since 2015-2016, it became very serious,” Fidelis said. “There has been this dream of providing grazer reserves. That didn't go well. Then they wanted to provide a cattle ranch. That didn't go very well. Late last year, there was the idea of Ruga to create cattle colonies.”
“They were asking for very vast land in every state to give to these herders,” he continued. “That was proposed as a solution to end the herder-farmer clash. You ask for a large chunk of land in every state? How many ethnic groups do we have? How many forms of businesses do we have? There are farmers also, other traders. There are other ethnic groups also. How sensitive is that to the diversity of the country?”
Objections to such policies came from many wondering whose land would be taken to create these grazing reserves, Fidelis said.
“Where would you have in a state that expanse of land?” Fidelis asked. “Let's say you want to get 40 hectares of land in each state. How, where would you get such land in one place, or even in three places without having to encroach on a little piece of farmer's land?”
“So what happens?” Fidelis wondered. “Will you compensate [the farmer] and throw him out of business? What does he do?”
Fidelis said that up until now, most lands that are not government reserve lands are owned by indigenous tribes and locals whose ancestors have lived there for generations.
“So if I go into a place, I don't just go to the ministry of a land survey and pay money there. There is an individual who owns that land,” Fidelis said. “It is to him I say, ‘I want to have a piece of your land’ and we negotiate. An agreement is drafted and I pay him money and I go there to get a certificate of occupancy and develop the land.”
Denial of land to build churches
In northern states such as Borno and Yobe, Fidelis said it's extremely difficult for Christian communities to acquire land to build churches.
“It will vary from state to state,” he said. “In Borno and Yobe, you will struggle to get land. When you get it, they will just give it to you far out of the town. You can imagine being given land to build a church and that land is 15 miles outside of the town.”
Within the town, Fidelis said it's difficult because sales must be approved by certain local officials. Oftentimes, he said, those officials are Muslims who oppose the construction of churches.
“These [officials] are mostly Muslims,” he said. “It’s better to use a private person to get the land who can give it [to the church] as a donation.”
Fidelis said that in the past, missionaries were given lands. But recently, many churches in these areas need to rent properties to hold public services.
“The evangelicals went that way,” he said. “If someone has a hall or big parlor, they go to these places and worship.”
Denial of just remunerations
Fidelis said that many Christians retiring from government service are often being denied their fair pensions or remunerations when they reach retirement age in northern Nigeria.
Fidelis said they are being “denied their just entitlements simply because they are Christians.”
“When you're retiring, it's very hard for you to get your remuneration when you are a Christian,” he told CP. “In other times, they process that of Muslims because [Muslims are] always in charge of finance or whatever.”
“So you hear that someone has serious retirement benefits and gratuity, and so he's settling for pension,” he continued. “But a Christian goes like two or three years and is off salary and is not on pension.”
Fidelis said that some officials in charge of awarding the pension will demand kickbacks from Christians before their pension is paid out.
“It’s very difficult for them to process that and ask for that,” he said.
While those in charge are not outright denying pension to Christian employees, Fidelis said that Christians are often forced to overcome undue obstacles.
“They’ll say that a file is missing or tell them to apply again,” Fidelis explained. “That is the persecution. No one comes openly and says ‘You are a Christian. I'm not giving you your gratuity.’ They wouldn't do that. But sometimes they say, ‘Ah, we haven't even received the letter and the file is missing the office.’ You will begin processing your rights and all that. When someone is done, it moves the next desk and they are told to come back.”
Fidelis said that life is very hard when someone is forced to wait as many as five to 10 years to receive their pensions.
Denial of access to some degree fields
According to Fidelis, access to study law or medicine in state-run universities in northern Nigeria is often denied to Christian candidates.
In Yobe, Fidelis said that Christians are also denied scholarships enabling them to study abroad.
Denial of such educational opportunities to Christians also impacts their ability to obtain well-paying jobs.
“A lot of our students apply to study law, to study medicine in the university,” Fidelis explained. “This particular at the University of Maiduguri. Even if you have the points and all that, you will never get there.”
Nigeria ranks as the 12th worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA's 2020 World Watch List. In December, Nigeria was listed for the first time on the U.S. State Department's “special watch list” of countries where religious freedom violations are severe.