From the Philippines to West Africa the tenth parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator, is a geographical frontline between Christianity and Islam. Eliza Griswold has researched the resulting conflict for seven years. This is her dispatch from Nigeria
Nigeria’s troubles between Christians and Muslims began in the late 1960s, during the Biafran civil war, when Nigeria’s southeast seceded under the banner of Christian emancipation from the Muslim north. The divisions intensified in the 1980s, when the first oil boom collapsed and the ensuing economic downturn led to widespread violence. But it was really the end of military rule in 1999 and the political free-for-all of weak democracy that ignited religious violence. Democracy, paradoxically, fuelled the friction between Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians. Elections are often violent, and people have voted along religious lines since democracy began.
Over the last decade, local and global events have fed the ongoing skirmishes – the 1999 and 2000 implementation of Islamic law in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states; the US bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, during which Nigerian Muslims lashed out at local Christians as scapegoats for the West’s attack on an Islamic country; and the 2002 Miss World pageant, when a local Christian reporter named Isioma Daniel angered the Muslim community by writing in one of Nigeria’s newspapers that a beauty pageant was no cause for moral concern. “The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria to ask them to revel in vanity,” she wrote in This Day. “What would Muhammad think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them.” This comment, which millions felt smacked of blasphemy, inflamed Nigerian Muslims, and riots broke out on the streets, killing hundreds. In 2006, more riots, this time triggered by the Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad – an act many believe that Islam forbids – left at least 16 people dead – more than anywhere else in the world. In 2008, in the Middle Belt capital of Jos, several hundred Muslims and Christians were killed in clashes surrounding a local election. At least 300 more died in Jos during 2009. Farther northeast, in the town of Maiduguri, a splinter group of al majari youth who called themselves Boko Haram (“Western Education Forbidden”) launched local riots over what they vaguely saw as the rising tide of Western influence. Fighting spread to three other states and left 700 dead. By early 2010, hundreds more were killed in clashes between Christians and Muslims outside of Jos.
Two candidates stood on opposite sides of the barren soccer field as the people of Yelwa, a town of 30,000 about an hour north of Wase, lined up to vote. For the past 100 years Yelwa has been a mostly Muslim trading town. This May morning in 2002 was shaping up to be tense, as the town’s Muslim traders milled between the field’s iron goalposts. So did their historic enemies: the non-Muslim ethnic groups who were gaining in numbers and political power, and were now Christians. Most belonged to the church that Karl Kumm founded a century ago, the Church of Christ in Nigeria.
As the two groups waited in the heat to be counted, the meeting’s tone soured. “You could feel the tension in the air,” said Abdullahi Abdullahi, a 55-year-old Muslim lawyer and community leader. A tall, angular man with a space between his two front teeth and shoulders hunched around his ears in perpetual apology, he was helping to direct the crowd that day. The gap in numbers, he said, was painfully easy to see. “Let’s face it, a Christian comes with his one wife; I come with my four. Who do you think has more people?” No one knows what happened first. Someone shouted arna (“infidel”) at the Christians. Someone spat the word jihadi at the Muslims. Someone picked up a stone. Chaos ensued, as young people on each side began to throw rocks. The candidates ran for their lives, and mobs set fire to the surrounding houses. “That was the day ethnicity disappeared entirely and the conflict became just about religion,” Abdullahi said.
Soon after, the Christians issued an edict that no Christian girl could be seen with a Muslim boy. “We had a problem of intermarriage,” Pastor Sunday Wuyep, Abdullahi’s community counterpart and the head of Kumm’s church, told me when I first visited the town in 2006. “Just because our ladies are stupid and attracted to money,” he sighed. Economics lay at the heart of the enmity between the two groups: as merchants and herders, the Muslims were much wealthier than the minority Christians. But Pastor Wuyep, like many others, felt that Muslims were trying to wipe out Christians by converting them through marriage. So he and the other elders decided to punish the women. “If a woman gets caught with a Muslim man,” Wuyep said, “she must be forcibly brought back.” The decree turned out to be a call to vigilante violence as both Christian and Muslim patrols took to the streets.
Mornings in Yelwa begin with prayer for both Muslims and Christians. One Tuesday morning in February 2004, 70 people were performing their morning devotions at Kumm’s church. As the worshippers finished their prayers, they heard gunshots and a call from the loudspeakers of the mosque next door: “Allahu Akhbar, let us go for jihad.” “We were terrified,” Pastor Wuyep recalled. He had been standing outside the gate as the churchyard swarmed with strangers posing in fatigues as Nigerian soldiers. He stayed near the church gate, but many others fled toward the road behind the church. There, the men dressed as soldiers reassured them that they were safe and herded them back to the church. Then they opened fire.
Pastor Sunday Wuyep fled. The attackers – who were never identified – set the church on fire and killed everyone who tried to escape. They chased the head of the church, Pastor Sampson Bukar, to his house next door and ran him through with the long machetes that are called cutlasses in Nigeria. They set fire to the nursery school and the pastor’s house. His burned Peugeot was still in the compound in 2006, though the church had been rebuilt and painted salmon pink. Boys were playing soccer, each wearing one shoe so that everyone could kick the ball. “Seven in my family were killed,” Wuyep said in the churchyard. “We call them martyrs.” He pointed to a mound of earth not far from where we were sitting. On top was a small wooden cross: it marked the mass grave for the 78 people killed that day.
“This is about religious intolerance,” he went on. “Our God is different than the Muslim God. ... If he were the same God, we wouldn’t fight.” For Pastor Wuyep, the clash was grounded in Christian scripture. “It’s scriptural, this fight,” he said. “The Bible says in Matthew 24, the time will come when they will pursue us in our churches.” Wuyep and his followers, like many conservative Christians, believed that Jesus Christ would return to earth after one thousand years of bloodshed and war. This was the doctrine of pre-millennialism as foretold in Matthew 24. They believed the chaos of the Tribulation would precede the world’s end and herald Christ’s return. Because they believed they were living during last days, the Christians found meaning in their suffering, and in their own violence.
A few hundred yards down the road from the church is a cornfield, and in it a row of mounds: more mass graves. Green-and-white signs tally the piles of Muslims buried below: 110, 50, 65, 100, 55, 25, 60, 20, 40, 105. Two months after the church was razed, Christian men and boys surrounded Yelwa. Many were bare-chested; others wore shirts on which they had reportedly pinned white name tags from the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organisation founded in the 1970s to give Christians a unified voice as strong as that of Muslims. Each tag had a number instead of a name: an identification code. They attacked the town. According to Human Rights Watch, 660 Muslims were massacred over the course of the next two days, including the patients in the al-Amin clinic. Twelve mosques and 300 houses went up in flames. Young girls were marched to a nearby Christian town and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Many were raped, and 50 were killed.
Yelwa was still a ghost town in 2006. In block after burned-out block, people camped where their homes had stood. The road was lined with more than a dozen ruined mosques and churches, the rubble hidden by hip-high elephant grass and canary-yellow morning glories climbing the old foundations. When I arrived at the home of Abdullahi Abdullahi, the Muslim human rights lawyer, his street was mostly deserted. He stooped on his way out of a low-ceilinged hut. Behind him, I could see the sour faces of a man and woman sitting on the floor by his desk. “Marital dispute,” he said.
It was the rainy season, so I waited out the noon deluge in another small lean-to on his compound. Finally, Abdullahi ducked inside, a worn accordion file under his arm. His wife followed, carrying a pot of spaghetti, its steam rising against the cold, wet air. In the beginning, he explained, the conflict in Nigeria had nothing whatsoever to do with religion.
“Let me give myself as a case study,” Abdullahi said. He went to Christian mission schools and federal college, and never, as a Muslim, had any problem. “Throughout this period, I’d never seen religious segregation, because at that time the societal value system was intact. We were taught to respect each other’s beliefs and customs.” But as the population grew and resources shrank, people began to fight over who had come to Yelwa first, and who had arrived more recently as a “settler.” Abdullahi held up an old sheet of newsprint on which an editorial’s headline read, “We Are All Settlers!” Everyone who lived here came from somewhere else; everyone had settled.
Both sides had perpetrated atrocities, he admitted. “We could not control our own boys.” Outside in the courtyard, three of the local “boys” – men, actually – sat against the hut shivering against the cold rain of the plateau in thin, well-pressed shirts. I wanted to know if they thought this was really about religion.
“Any Muslim struggling to protect himself is fighting in a jihad,” Lawal, a 39-year-old headmaster, said. His cheeks were cut deep with three slashes; they looked like a cat’s whiskers. He was wearing a purple shirt. “If someone attacks you, you have the right to defend yourself – call it jihad or whatever you want – but this was Christians attacking Muslims,” he continued. He believed the Christians were plotting to eliminate the Muslims long before the church attack. “The Christians came in the sense of crusade. By the nature of the attack and the weapons they used, they attacked with a view to eliminating the Muslim community and levelling the town.” Crusade, genocide – the goal was to eradicate a community, a people, a religion. Lawal lost every thing: his family, his house, his cattle, his job as a headmaster. “There’s no justice here; no one has been caught, punished or arrested, so there’s no security.” He leaned forward. “We want what belongs to us: the right to education, the right to practise my religion...”
Abdullahi raised his palm to clarify. No one was stopping Lawal from practising his religion, Abdullahi explained, but the younger man wouldn’t listen. In his mind, Islam was still under attack, and there was no dissuading him.
In 2004, after this spate of massacres, Nigeria declared a state of emergency. But the fighting really stopped because it was too expensive for either side to continue. Whole communities lay in ruin. Cows, cars, farms, shops – all gone. Since then, Abdullahi has attempted to bring several cases to the government’s attention, but as with the church massacre, the government has done little to investigate or to bring those involved to justice.
He handed me a folder with depositions from one such case and went outside. About 20 minutes later, Abdullahi returned with two young women, Hamamatu Danladi and Yasira Ibrahim, who had survived the incident detailed in the files. Danladi, rawboned and wrapped tightly in brown batik patterned with cowry shells, met my eye as she stood in the doorway; Ibrahim, with long, upturned lashes and a moon face, did not. Except for the fact that they had pulled the fabric over their heads to cover themselves, there was nothing about them to suggest they were Muslims. More often than not, my attempts to classify people according to skin colour or height failed entirely. Abdullahi invited the women in, lowered his head, and left.
During the Christian attack, the two young women and others took shelter in an elder’s guarded home. On the second day, the Christian militia arrived at the house. They were covered in red and blue paint and were wearing those numbered white name tags. The Christians first killed the guards, then chose from among the women. These two and others were marched toward the Christian village. “They were killing children on the road,” Danladi said. Outside the elementary school, her abductor grabbed hold of two Muslim boys she knew, nine and ten years old. Along with other men, he took a machete to them until they were in pieces, then stuffed the pieces in a rubber tire and set it on fire.
When Danladi and Ibrahim reached their captors’ village, they were forced to go against their faith by drinking alcohol, eating pork and dog meat. Although she was visibly pregnant, Danladi said that her abductor raped her for four days. After a month, the police fetched her and Ibrahim from the Christian village and took them to the camp where most of the town’s Muslim residents had fled. There, the two young women were reunited with their husbands. They never discussed what happened in the bush.
At the time of the Yelwa massacre of Muslims in May 2004, Archbishop Peter Akinola was president of the Christian Association of Nigeria. He has since lost his bid for another term, but as head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, he is still the leader of 18 million Anglicans. He was also a colleague of my father, Frank Griswold, when, from 1997 to 2006, he was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, which has about two million members and is part of a larger network of churches called the Anglican Communion. Three years before I met Akinola, the diocese of New Hampshire had consecrated an open homosexual, the Right Reverend Gene Robinson, as bishop, an act without precedent in the Anglican Communion. This raised a hue and cry among Americans and Africans alike. Robinson’s election was so contentious that my father – whose job it was, as presiding bishop, to consecrate new bishops – had to wear a bulletproof vest under his cassock at the service. The election also antagonised Archbishop Akinola, who saw in it more evidence that the profligate West was willing to abandon its biblical faith and leave African Christians, already in peril among Muslims, to defend themselves against the sins of the West. Denouncing Gene Robinson’s election as “satanic”, Akinola suddenly stood at a distance from my father.
When I arrived in the capital of Abuja to see the archbishop, his office door was locked. Its complicated buzzing-in system was malfunctioning, and he was trapped inside. Finally, after several minutes, the buzzing stopped and I could hear a man behind the door rise and come across the floor. The archbishop, in a powder-blue pantsuit and a darker blue crushed velvet hat, opened the door.
“My views on Islam are well known: I have nothing more to say,” he said, eyeing me. I imagine what he saw was an American bishop’s daughter. But he did have more to say. The fact is, I was asking about the threat Islam posed to Christianity, and this was the great question of his life. Once he began to answer, he grew expansive, even voluble, as he tried to pull the scales off the eyes of a Western reporter. Archbishop Akinola, who is 66, is Yoruba, a member of an ethnic group from southwestern Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully. But his understanding of Islam was forged by his experience in the north, where he watched the persecution of a Christian minority. He has repeatedly spoken critically about Islam and liberal Western Christians, and he was wary of my motives in asking him to comment. For Akinola, the relationship between liberal Protestants and Islam is straightforward: if Western Christians abandon conservative morals, then the global Church will be weakened in its struggle against Islam.
“When you have this attack on Christians in Yelwa, and there are no arrests, Christians become dhimmi, the status within Islam that allows Christians and Jews to be seen as second-class citizens. You are subject to the Muslims. You have no rights.”
When I asked if the men wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to Yelwa before the massacre of Muslims, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naïve to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on: “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practising and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”
Akinola was more interested in talking about the West than about Nigeria. “People are thinking that Islam is an issue in Africa and Asia, but you in the West are sitting on explosives,” he said. “What Islam failed to accomplish by the sword in the eighth century, it’s trying to do by immigration so that Muslims become citizens and demand their rights. A Muslim man has four wives; the wives have four or five children each. This is how they turned Christians into a minority in North Africa,” he asserted.
The archbishop believed that he and his fellow Christians living at the periphery of Muslim North Africa knew the future that awaited the West. “The West has thrown God out, and Islam is filling that vacuum for you, and now your Christian heritage is being destroyed. You people are so afraid of being accused of being Islamophobic. Consequently everyone recedes and says nothing. Over the years, Christians have been so naïve – avoiding politics, economics and the military because they’re dirty business.
“The missionaries taught that. Dress in tatters. Wear your bedroom slippers. Be poor. But Christians are beginning to wake up to the fact that money isn’t evil, the love of money is, and it isn’t wrong to have some of it. Neither,” he added, “is politics.”
Extracted from The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Faultline Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold, published by Allen Lane. © Eliza Griswold