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Church leaders decry biggest kidnapping of pupils in Nigeria since Chibok girls’ abduction

A boy holds a sign in Kaduna, Nigeria, March 8, 2024, protesting current conditions in the country. Recent kidnappings of hundreds of people, including almost 300 schoolchildren March 7 in Kuriga in the central part of Nigeria, have left church leaders and parents, including Catholics, speechless as kidnappings become a horrific new normal. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

(OSV News) — Recent kidnappings of hundreds of people in Nigeria, including almost 300 schoolchildren March 7 in Kuriga in the central part of the country, have left church leaders and parents, including Catholics, speechless in the face of another wave of senseless violence.

As kidnappings become a horrific new normal in Nigeria, church leaders have strongly urged the government to act.

In broad daylight gunmen raided a government primary school and kidnapped at least 287 pupils in the biggest mass abduction from a school in a decade. The incident is the second mass kidnapping in the West African nation of more than 200 million in less than a week.

“This is heartbreaking to all of us, and it’s now time for the authorities to act fast to stop the killings and abductions,” lamented Emmanuel Ayeni Nwogu, catechist from the Archdiocese of Kaduna, where the March 7 abduction happened. “We continue to pray for the children who have been kidnapped, and we hope they are still alive and under the mighty hand of God.”

Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Peace prize winner shot in 2012 for fighting for the rights of girls in Afghanistan to be educated, condemned the kidnapping of more than 200 students in Nigeria.

“No child should endure the horror and trauma of being forcibly abducted from their schools,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on March 10. “Children around the world — from Nigeria to Gaza to Afghanistan — must be able to access school safely and freely. I urgently call on all relevant authorities to facilitate a safe return for all those abducted in Kaduna State and I stand with their grieving families in these trying times.”

The abduction of the children, led to a nearby forest at gunpoint, happened 10 years after the Boko Haram terrorist group abduction of 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok caused international outrage. In grim statistics of that tragic incident, 98 of the victims are still missing, according to Amnesty International.

More than 3,600 people were reported abducted in Nigeria in 2023 — the highest number in five years, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project — a number that includes several priests, whose kidnappings became a plague of the church in Nigeria.

Nwogu told OSV News that the gunmen have ensured that hundreds of churches remain closed in northern Nigeria and other parts of the country, and they are now raiding schools, abducting children and teachers, and conspiring to introduce a restrictive Islamic Sharia law in the region. The primary target of the militants are Christians, although the terror groups target government schools as well as they lack fighters and abduct boys for military purposes.

“The gunmen mostly kidnap and kill Christians and their leaders,” the lay leader explained, noting that people who are being killed after the kidnapping are mostly Christians. “The gunmen could abduct anyone, whether they are Christian or Muslim, but when it comes to killings, they will only kill Christians. For Muslims, the gunmen will ask for ransom or use hostages as recruits for fighters.”

Africa’s most populous nation has faced an array of security challenges since 2009, when Boko Haram launched its Islamic uprising to overthrow Nigeria’s secular government and create an Islamic state.

The situation worsened in 2011 when the Fulani herders, turned militants, joined Boko Haram to escalate the attacks in northern and central Nigeria, targeting Christians.

The Intersociety advocacy group in Nigeria has said over 100,000 unarmed and defenseless citizens have died directly or indirectly outside the law in the hands of security forces in the past eight years, between August 2014 and December 2023.

In April 2023, Intersociety published a report that made headlines around the world, indicating
that since 2009, when the Boko Haram Islamist militant group began its murderous campaign to set up a caliphate across the Sahel, at least 52,250 Christians and 34,000 moderate Muslims had been butchered or hacked to death.

Nigeria’s major religion is Islam. According to the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom, as of 2015, the country was 50% Muslim and 48.1% Christian. The report also indicates that Catholics comprise approximately 25% of Christians.

“The government must take action to save the Christian population that radical Islamists are reducing,” warned Bishop Wilfred Anagbe of Makurdi. “The kidnappings, killings and destroying churches we are experiencing every day are aimed at finishing Christians,” he told OSV News.

Bishop Anagbe urged the authorities to protect the Christian population, churches and schools. While praying for the students who were abducted and those who have been kidnapped before, Bishop Anagbe said his diocese has experienced numerous attacks from Fulani militants.

“We are worried that despite such killings and kidnappings, the government has never arrested anyone,” he told OSV News. “As a church, we now demand that the government act quickly to stop these vices that continue to dishearten people.”

Meanwhile, Archbishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji of Owerri, president of Nigerian bishops’ conference, also accused the government of abandoning its people in a time of need. Archbishop Ugorji warned that the country was on the verge of disorder and lawlessness following the numerous terror attacks that the government had failed to stop.

“The government’s reform efforts to rejig the security architecture of our country have woefully failed to plug the many loopholes in the system,” Archbishop Ugorji said Feb. 18 during the bishops’ plenary in Abuja. “They have remained non-proactive and ineffective in checking kidnapping and senseless bloodshed across the country.”

Archbishop Ugorji highlighted the Christmas Eve massacre in 2023 that left nearly 200 Christians dead in Nigeria’s Plateau state, as well as the rising incidents of abduction across the country as illustrations of how fruitless the government’s reform efforts have been in securing the population.

“In the face of increasing violent crimes, the country stands on the brink of anarchy,” he said.

“‘So, the government should take urgent steps to rise to its primary responsibility of securing the lives and property of its citizens.”

At the same time, both Christian Concern and Open Doors, organizations that track Christian persecution in the world, rank Nigeria as one of the worst countries for Christians to live in after North Korea.

In the most recent wave of attacks on Christian schools, a gunman ambushed a school bus Jan. 29, carrying more than a dozen schoolchildren under age 10, and two priests of Nigeria’s Diocese of Pankshin were kidnapped Feb. 1.

Tonny Onyulo writes for OSV News from Nairobi, Kenya.

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