African Christians endured another grim year in 2022, especially in turbulent Somalia and Nigeria, where Islamist gangs such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State wiped out entire villages and Christian farmers clashed with herdsmen from the Fulani tribe.
According to the annual World Watch List of the 50 most dangerous countries to be Christian, four of the ten worst countries are African: Somalia ranks third, followed by Libya, Eritrea, and Nigeria. “Islamic oppression” was listed as the biggest threat in all but Eritrea, which offered a little variety with “dictatorial paranoia.”
Activist group Open Doors, which compiles the World Watch List each year, explained that Eritrea’s rulers permit only three heavily policed Christian denominations: Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran. All others are brutally persecuted as potential threats to state power, with punishments for outlaw clergy ranging from years in solitary confinement to forced military service.
Open Doors said Eritrea earned its unlovely nickname of “Africa’s North Korea” by imposing heavy surveillance on its citizens, especially Christians who do not belong to the three officially recognized denominations.
Somalia, the most dangerous African country for Christians, is also dangerous for just about everyone else due to constant attacks from Islamist terrorist groups, led by the infamous al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab controls a good deal of Somali territory outright, and it ruthlessly oppresses Christian residents of villages under its dominion. Outside of its territory, al-Shabaab treats Christians as priority targets for terrorism, especially those who converted from Islam. The terrorist group has a penchant for murdering humanitarian aid workers after accusing them of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
The U.S. State Department’s 2020 report on religious freedom noted that the nominal Somali central government does not control a great deal of land outside the capital city of Mogadishu, and some of the quasi- or fully independent provinces are extremely repressive.
Officials in independent Somaliland, for example, arrested a Christian couple in October for proselytizing their religion, and since the two are converts from Islam, there were calls from Muslim leaders to prosecute them for “apostasy,” which can be punished by execution or torture under sharia law.
“Whoever dares to spread Christianity in this region should be fully aware that they won’t escape the hand of the law enforcement officers and that the spread of Christianity will not be allowed and is considered blasphemy,” a Somaliland police official declared after the couple, who have an infant child, was arrested. The prisoners escaped harsher punishment by effectively being exiled from Somaliland and sent to Mogadishu.
The State Department noted that Somalia’s tattered central government technically guarantees the freedom to practice any religion but forbids spreading any, except the official state religion, Islam. Muslims are legally barred from converting to any other religion. The government pushes “Islamic values” for all school students, supposedly in an effort to counter al-Shabaab’s savage ideology, but Somali religious education has been heavily penetrated by extremist doctrines such as Salafism, which infuses the ideology of groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Salafism is not, to put it mildly, friendly to other religions.
Libya has an even more fractured and divided political system, and Christians are oppressed in just about every part of it. Christian migrant workers are harassed or detained as they pass through the numerous checkpoints maintained by the patchwork of factions that control Libya, and detainees are sometimes handed off to human traffickers.
As in Somalia, Libyan Muslims who convert to Christianity are accused of “apostasy,” and that can carry the death sentence. This is not just a matter of vigilantes and sharia courts; Libya’s legal code includes a decade-old requirement for apostates to be executed if they refuse to repent. One of Libya’s two feuding national governments attempted to invalidate it, along with other old laws, but the Libyan Supreme Court rejected this nullification, so the law is still technically in effect.
As the U.S. State Department has observed, Libya also has sharia vigilante groups, the worst of which are Salafists who regard practicing any other faith as an attack against Islam.
Nigeria, which entered the World Watch List top 10 last year, is among the most violently oppressive nations in the world – second only to Pakistan, in Open Doors’ estimation, and it actually outranked Pakistan this year in the total number of Christians killed for their faith.
Besides suffering constant attacks from Islamist terrorists such as Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State – West Africa Province (ISWAP), which explicitly seek to expunge Christianity from Nigeria – local Christians are frequently targeted for kidnapping, the most explosive growth industry in the country.
Kidnapping for ransom is a booming business that brings considerable revenue to Boko Haram and ISWAP, but plenty of less notorious bandit gangs are taking hostages and seeking big payoffs. The Nigerian government has been criticized for paying ransoms too readily because it wishes to avoid the embarrassment of dead hostages or failed rescue attempts, a policy that has made hostages the top cash crop.
Vulnerable Christians are popular targets for kidnappers, as in the case of a Catholic priest and seminarian who were seized in August for a six-figure ransom. Gangsters evidently assume Christian organizations can muster the funds to pay ransoms if the Nigerian government does not. Boko Haram and ISWAP both have a predilection for abducting Christian schoolgirls and forcibly converting them to Islam.
Nigerian Christians living in the country’s middle region additionally must contend with the Fulani, a culture of jihadist herdsmen who murdered dozens of Christians last year and destroyed their homes and churches.
Human rights activists say the Fulani killed more Christians than Boko Haram or ISWAP over the past few years. Christian groups accuse Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari of turning a blind eye to the campaign of terror because he is a Fulani himself.
The most recent Fulani atrocity occurred in December, when a Christian couple and their 17-year-old daughter were hacked to death with machetes on their farm. The couple’s other daughter, age 20, barely survived the attack and was hospitalized with deep cuts all over her body.
A rising threat in Nigeria is the Ansaru, another offshoot of Boko Haram that broke away because its leaders thought Boko Haram was not doing enough to purge Christianity from Nigeria.
Ansaru is an extremely violent ally of al-Qaeda, with well-trained fighters and a boundless appetite for heavy weapons provided by the illicit arms trade. It also runs a “hearts and minds” radicalization campaign to win support from Muslim communities by offering them protection against bandits and even delivering humanitarian supplies to villages neglected by the central government. Security analysts warned in 2022 that Ansaru is growing beyond Nigeria’s borders and spreading through the Sahel region.
Other hotspots identified by Open Doors included Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, both of which are battling savage Islamist insurgencies that target Christian villages for terror attacks.
Christian groups say persecution is growing more intense and widespread across Africa, and world governments, the media, and the United Nations are not doing enough to deal with the problem – indeed, they rarely even acknowledge Christians are the most widely and viciously persecuted group in Africa.
The Biden administration has been trying to develop its relationship with the Nigerian government, so it angered religious groups by delisting Nigeria in November 2021 as a country that violates religious freedom and by downplaying the threat of the Fulani jihadists in 2022. African leaders notorious for indulging Christian persecution and violating human rights were invited to the Biden administration’s “U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit” in mid-December.