Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:14 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 8:14, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate on such an important subject and introducing it so powerfully. I will focus on a detailed account of such persecution in two countries which I have visited many times and where I have had the painful privilege of meeting those directly suffering persecution. I will focus first on Nigeria. I am very pleased that it has already been highlighted in this debate because the situation there needs as much attention as possible.

There are almost 103 million Christians in Nigeria, which is almost half the country’s total population of 222 million. In the Muslim-majority north of the country, the proportion of Christians is much lower. This is traditionally where most of the persecution of Christians has happened. It continues to this day and continues to spread south. Such persecution is largely inflicted by Nigerian Islamist Muslims. I emphasise that the majority of Muslims in Nigeria are peaceable Islamic civilians. I make a distinction between “Islamic” and “Islamist”. Islam refers to those widespread and largely peaceful Muslim beliefs. Islamism refers to radical ideology, including movements such as Islamic State West Africa Province which are often associated with violence and persecution.

Those affected by this ideology in Nigeria include Christians living in the northern states that are under the influence of Islamic law. They face discrimination and great pressure as second-class citizens. Also, those who have converted to Christianity from Muslim backgrounds often experience rejection from their own families, violent intimidation and fierce pressure to renounce their new faith. Christians living in vulnerable locations, particularly in the north and central regions of the country, tend to be terrorised with devastating impunity by Islamist militants and armed so-called bandits.

More believers are killed for their faith each year in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Men and boys are often specifically targeted, to undermine the growth of Christian families in the future. Women and girls face abduction and sexual violence, with intense pressure, exacerbated by the knowledge that sometimes their communities reject them when they come home, believing that they may have become complicit with the Islamist ideology. The attacks often involve destruction of properties and abduction of civilians for ransom, sexual violence and killings. I have visited many places where civilians have been subjected to these terrorist attacks. I have spoken to families who have witnessed the abduction or killing of their loved ones. I have walked through the burnt remains of villages and seen the remnants of burnt churches, homes and shops. I have talked to shocked and grieving survivors. I will quote just a few of their testimonies verbatim; I have changed their names. Beatrice, aged 25 of Plateau State, said:

“I returned in the morning but everything was burned. I went to my home and saw my mother and siblings butchered and burned”.

Sarah, aged just 14, displaced to Abuja, said:

“We evacuated before the attack. Fulani militia burnt the orphanage and destroyed the crops”.

Janet, mother to four children, from Plateau State, said:

“I found my husband had been killed. I cannot go back to my village. It has been burnt. We are barely managing”.

I could give many more quotations. Christian believers are often stripped of their livelihoods and driven from their homes to survive as displaced people, leaving a trail of grief and trauma.

My small charity, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, works with local in-country partners in places where civilians are subject to persecution—places which are largely unreached by many other aid organisations for political and security reasons. In Nigeria, it is our privilege to work with the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi. We always ask our partners to identify their priorities for aid. Their priority in the Middle Belt region is a desperate need for educational resources for the thousands of young people driven from their homes by the current military offensives. Without education, they will not have a future.

HART has delivered education supplies for over 6,000 young people. It is a great privilege. I am always profoundly moved by the sheer delight on the faces of young people as educational resources arrive. However, the military offensives and associated dangers persist and the people of Nigeria still suffer from sustained persecution. I will give one or two more examples. The famous kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014 did excite some attention but mostly that does not happen. Earlier this month, nearly 200 people were kidnapped in the Kajuru local council territory in central Nigeria, in addition to over 300 people kidnapped this year by suspected Islamist Fulani militia groups freely operating in the region. More than 300 Christian farmers have been killed in the region since January.

The suffering is exacerbated by the major problem of virtually no aid from the Nigerian Government being provided for those suffering persecution. Our local partner, Reverend Canon Hassan John, told us that, for over 10 years, displaced villagers have been forced to rely on aid from local churches or NGOs. He said:

“I can say categorically that there has been very little or no aid, not even from the state or Federal Government of Nigeria … I am not aware of any assistance from the British Government in the central region … In Southern Kaduna state, at least seven communities have [recently] been attacked. Villagers are forced to move onto the next village. None of these villages have received security or humanitarian assistance. Families in neighbouring villages do what they can to absorb and care for their relatives”.

The UK Government have sent much-needed assistance to north-eastern states in Nigeria, where Boko Haram continues to attack and devastate rural areas, but little or nothing has been sent to those suffering persecution in Middle Belt locations, who continue to lose their homes and property and are forced to pay ransom to free their relatives kidnapped by the Islamist Fulani militia groups. They appeal to His Majesty’s Government to urge the Nigerian Government to meet the needs of their civilians, especially in the Middle Belt, who are suffering from killings, abductions and destruction of homes, churches, and clinics, with over 2.5 million forced to flee and live in dire conditions as displaced people.

I turn briefly to my second example: Armenia, the first nation to become Christian. Armenia suffered genocide in the last century and is now suffering sustained Islamist Azerbaijani attacks. I have been there many times; we have seen the people having to flee. The little land of Nagorno-Karabakh, historically ancient Armenia, has now been cleansed of all Armenians—a real case of ethnic cleansing. Armenia is not a big nation to have to take the many people displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh.

I will finish with a quote from one of the bishops:

“It is not only the perpetrators of crime and evil who commit sin, but also those who stand by – seeing and knowing – and who do not condemn it or try to avert it”.

Blessed are the peacemakers, who not only speak words of peace, but make peace, for they shall be called the children of God. I finish with those words, offering them as an inspiring tribute to the theme of this debate, with the focus on people suffering persecution in our world today, while we talk this evening.