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Nigeria:Muslim Threat To Attack Church Raises Tensions

ICC Note

“Becoming Christians means permanent separation from their families if they must remain alive,”

October 10 Nigeria (Compass Direct News) – Militant Islamists in this city in the northern state of Borno have sent three letters to a church warning that members would be attacked in the next few days, raising tensions where 50 Christians were killed and 57 churches destroyed last year.

Leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria told Compass that the letters were dropped onto the premises of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN), in the Polo Area of Maiduguri, on separate days last week.

Mosque calls to prayer were sounded at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. last night, hours when Muslims do not usually observe prayers, putting police and security agencies on alert. By 6 this morning, police armored tanks were patrolling the streets to thwart any plans to attack Christians.

The Rev. Daniel Mbaya of the Polo Area Church of the Brethren, which has about 3,000 members, had reported the threat to police and Christian leaders. Nigeria ’s security agencies and Christian leaders held an emergency meeting yesterday on ways to protect Christians in the event of an Islamic strike on the church.

Rev. Mbaya is no stranger to Nigerian security agents, as Muslims in the city have long opposed the existence of his church.

The church was planted when members of the Church at Wulari EYN Church in Maiduguri encountered difficulties in getting to their sanctuary whenever there was energy crisis, as getting fuel for cars was nearly impossible. To solve the problem, a member of the church, Andrew Balami, then a public officer in the Borno state government, offered his home for worship services.

Balami’s residence became a home church where Bible studies and prayers were being held regularly. The emergence of this house church in the GRA Area of Maiduguri attracted other Christians in the vicinity, and area Muslims soon took their objections to the presence of the church to Borno officials. The Muslim-dominated state government ordered Balami to close the house church or face sanctions it.

Balami did not budge, and harassment of the house church continued. The Borno government ordered a halt to payment of Balami’s salary. He was threatened with dismissal. Eventually Balami was suspended from office for one year.

Balami had received 10 letters from the government warning him against using his house as a church. He was also threatened with legal prosecution, and Balami asked members of the church to relocate. The church members decided to raise funds to build a sanctuary.

They managed to raise 3.5 million naira (US$28,500), which they used to buy a night club property. Construction of the new sanctuary began soon after.

The Borno state government, however, ordered construction to stop. While church leaders pressed for building to continue, Muslims moved into the area in order to claim that a church would be too close to where they worship and hence not allowed. The Christians’ new neighbors told them to leave the property.

Church members resolved to die in the defense of the new sanctuary, Mbaya said. They continued construction while worshiping under makeshift shade on the property. Since its completion, various authorities have ordered Mbaya to report to security agencies almost monthly.

“I have been arrested, harassed and detained by the police, security services, and even soldiers were used to harass me,” Mbaya told Compass. “This year alone, I have been invited by the police more than three times.”

Sanctuary Set Ablaze

The sanctuary was set ablaze on February 18 last year, alongside other churches in the city, by Muslim militants protesting cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper.

On that day, Mbaya returned from a pastors’ conference outside the city. He entered Maiduguri and was able to get to his house before the violence erupted, but there he received a phone call that Muslims were heading toward his church to set it ablaze. He quickly phoned police.

“I drove to the church premises and discovered that already there were hundreds of Muslim militants who had congregated around the church and were setting the church building on fire,” he told Compass.

Mybaya was able to get six policemen to accompany him back to the church as it burned, he said, but the officers did not arrest any of the extremists.

“I and some members of my church who braved the crisis to defend our church building arrested eight of the Muslim militants and then handed them over to the police,” he said. “But they were released soon without trial.”

Besides the church fire, he said, five members of his church were attacked in their homes and critically injured.

“Our church building at the Church’s Farm Centre was also completely burned,” he said. “Mr. Misari, one of our church members at the Farm Centre Church , was stabbed with a knife and left to bleed to death. He was eventually rescued by other church members who took him to the hospital.”

On the whole, Mbaya says Muslim militants attacked Christians for a period of four hours. “They rioted from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. without restraint.”

Convert Dangers

Most of Muslim converts to Christianity in the city, Mbaya said, have been threatened with death from family members and other Muslims.

“Recently, we had one Muslim convert, Hussaini Mohammed. But, because of the threat to his life, we were forced to take him to another state in order to protect him,” he said. “We also have another convert by the name Musa Mohammed Tukur, who has been disciple and has to be taken into hiding because of the threat on his life.”

Whenever Muslims convert, the church takes them into hiding because it is not possible for them to return to their families, he said.

“Becoming Christians means permanent separation from their families if they must remain alive,” he said. “If they return to their families they would certainly be killed.”

The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria has about 10 converts from Islam hidden in different parts of the country.

The Rev. Yuguda Zibagai Ndurvwa, minister in charge of the EYN Church , Wulari area of Maiduguri , corroborated the threat to the local Polo Area church.

“It is not only that church that is facing tough times, but all Christian churches in the city of Maiduguri ,” he said.

Ndurvwa said Christians also suffer discrimination in public service and in schools. Kidnapping of children was another problem common to EYN members as well as other Christians in Borno state.

“A member of our church here, Mama Asabe Ladagu, had her appointment terminated at the Ramat Polytechnic because she was seen speaking against discrimination of Christian staff and students of the institution,” Ndurvwa said.

He also cited the abduction of a Christian girl, Maryamu Bulus, a member of his EYN Church , who was forcefully married to a Muslim man.

For Mbaya, doing ministry among Muslims is a challenging task.

“Doing ministry among Muslims is very challenging and very difficult,” he said. “It takes the grace of God to save you, the pastor, as well as the convert.”

The imposition of sharia (Islamic) law, forceful relocation of churches, and lack of land for the building of new church buildings are other problems confronting Christians in this state, he said.

“Government resources are being used to propagate and promote Islam to the detriment of Christianity,” Mbaya said. “A ministry of religious affairs has been created to cater for the religious needs of Muslims, and yet, Christians do not have such privileges.”