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Church in Jos , Nigeria Faces Constant Threats, Damage

Christian outpost remains in Muslim area five years after violence erupted.

by Obed Minchakpu

JOS, Nigeria , June 20 (Compass Direct) – For the Gangare area congregation of the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) in this central Nigerian city, the first Saturday in June brought yet another difficult day of fending off Muslim opposition.

Church members were trying to erect a protective fence around the church when a large number of Muslims on June 3 stormed the facility and forcibly halted the work.

“We were digging a trench round the property when the Muslims in large number rushed onto the premises of the church and warned that unless we stopped the erection of the fence, they would deal with us and burn down the church,” church elder Dauda Mshelia told Compass.

Previously Muslims had built a house on part of the land belonging to the church. The Christians took them to court, which ruled in favor of the church.

“To avoid a situation that will ignite a conflict between us and the Muslims, we had to stop the work,” Mshelia added. “Even now, there are plans by the Muslims to attack us anytime we are in the church and to burn the sanctuary – that is why you see the police keeping watch over the church.”

Following the confrontation, government officials from the Ministry of Lands, Survey and Town Planning went to the church on the June 9 to meet with both Muslim and Christian leaders. The officials explained that the property in question belonged to the church and is covered by a Certificate of Occupancy number PL3355.

According to church elders, the Muslims who overran the church premises removed beacons set up by government officials marking the church’s land.

Three Muslim men lay claim to the property – Alhaji Dan Mallam, Kabir Umar, and one Awaulu – though they have not been able to prove that they own it. They have refused to abide by Jos High Court Three’s judgment in favor of the church.

Police and Plateau state officials have stepped in, but tension remains high. There are fears that if this issue is not resolved, then it might ignite fresh religious hostilities in the state.

Not Intimidated

Church members are well acquainted with fierce opposition; Muslims destroyed the original church building after conflict erupted into widespread violence in 2001.

“Muslims have dominated this area of Jos city called Gangare,” said the ECWA church’s immediate past pastor, the Rev. Sani Damisa. “Christians here were attacked, their houses destroyed, and all the churches forced to relocate to other parts of Jos city, with the exception of our church. ECWA Church , Gangare is the only Christian church in this area of Jos.”

The outbreak of violence dispersed the 280 members of the church; the newly constituted church has just 120. The church relocated to a new site 500 meters away after the first one was destroyed, but even in the new building, members daily face Muslim extremists throwing stones at them as they worship in the sanctuary.

Rev. Damisa said the church has remained in Gangare only because members do not want to give in to intimidation and suppression.

“Every time we are in the church, Muslims throw stones at us,” he said. “Sometimes they deface the church walls and doors with excrement.”

In past years Muslim extremists have stripped the church of doors and windows and corrugated iron sheets from the roof; many other church items have been taken and not recovered.

Holding programs in the church at night is out of the question, he said – the Muslims would definitely attack.

The church has reported the harassment to police authorities and the government of Plateau state, but none of the attackers have been charged.

In spite of the efforts to humiliate them out of the area, Rev. Damisa said, “We cannot give up serving God here; we are determined to put the devil to shame. This sanctuary will remain here to the glory of God.”

A Dream of Death

Rev. Damisa was named pastor of the church only a week before the outbreak of hostilities and escaped death only because he had not assumed duties yet, he said.

The church secretary, Anthony Oga, was not so fortunate. Martha Oga described how her husband was killed. On the night of September 6, 2001, she and her late husband were in bed when she had a dream that war had broke out in the city and that he was killed.

“I was crying and shouting in the dream when my husband woke me up,” she said. “He asked me what was the matter, and I told him about the dream. He in turn told me that he too was dreaming when my cries woke him up. Even though he did not tell me what his dream was about, his friend later told me that my husband said he had a dream that he was on his way to the church and suddenly some people saw him holding a Bible and they attacked him.”

On September 7, 2001, religious violence broke out in the city of Jos . Over 1,000 persons were reported to have died in the city over the following week, and thousands of others displaced. Oga said that when the crisis erupted, women and children in her area of Rikkos village escaped to army barracks in the Muslim-dominated area.

She was in the barracks on Saturday night, September 8, but felt compelled to return to the house the following morning, she said. “I felt very uncomfortable staying in the safety of the barracks while my husband was alone back in the house, and so, I decided to return to the house,” she said.

Upon returning home, Oga said she met her husband preparing to go to the ECWA’s Gangare church.

“I told him it was not safe to go to the church, but he never said anything to me – I guess he was disturbed about the church,” she said. “He wanted to get to the church to ensure that it was not burnt down, since he was the secretary of the church.”

She never saw him again; Muslim militants killed him in the church. “We only heard he was killed, but up to this moment I am talking to you, we have not seen his corpse,” she said.

Oga said caring for their six children has not been an easy task; her 4-year-old Ibrahim was born two months after his father was murdered. Three of her six children are in high school, three in primary school.

Such are the civilians at war in Jos. While the original members of the Gangare church were dispersed or killed in 2001, Rev. Damisa noted that the new families constituting the congregation have resolved never to give in to persecution.

“The strategy of the Muslims is that if they attack us and we flee, they then appropriate our land and homes as spoils of war and then consolidate their hold on the area, and then move on to attack us again in the new area we have moved to,” he said. “In this way, they gain ground by spreading the tentacles of Islam. We do not think it is wise for Christians to take to their heels any time they are attacked by Muslims. How can we run away from the land the Lord has given us?”