Muslim Leaders Challenged to Play Role in Ending Christian Persecution in Nigeria

Fr. Stan Chu Ilo. Credit: Courtesy Photo

Christian religious leaders continue to play their role in ensuring that the violence in Nigeria does not transition into a religious war, a Catholic Theologian has said, and challenged Muslim leaders to condemn extremism in the West African nation.

In an interview with ACI Africa, Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, a Research Professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University in the U.S. called on the Muslim religious leaders in Nigeria to start undoing what he described as a deeply rooted religious discord perpetrated by Islamists who emerged in the country decades ago. 

The discord, he said during the February 17 interview, has seen a protracted persecution of Christians in Africa’s most populous country. 

Fr. Stan said he found it baffling that whenever an Islamist is found responsible for an attack against a Christian in Nigeria today, Muslim leaders are usually quick to disassociate themselves from the culprits.

“Whenever you talk with the Muslims about the violence, they often deny that perpetrators of the heinous crimes are not Muslims. They say ‘these are not our people’. But clearly, these people don’t come to our churches,” Fr. Stan said.


He added, “What the Muslim leaders are denying is that the violence, mostly perpetrated by Islamist groups who are against Christians, is a failure of their system. The crime is a function of how the Muslim leaders have socialized, and continue to socialize their children and young people.”

“Muslim leaders need to reexamine what children and young people are taught in Quranic schools. They need to look at what they teach these young people concerning their relationships with others who do not subscribe to Islam,” Fr. Stan said.

According to the US-based Nigerian scholar, the ongoing persecution of Christians in Nigeria stems from Islamic jihad that was launched in the country decades ago.

He gave the example of the infamous Maitatsine riots in northern Nigeria between 1980 and 1985, which involved violent uprisings that were led by Muhammadu Marwa, a Muslim of Cameroonian descent who was against western education in the country.

The riots have been said to have prompted “immense ethnoreligious discord” between Muslims and Christians to date.

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"So many people were killed. Houses belonging to Christians were burnt down and because the war was also ethnocentric, the Hausa who were majorly Christians were targeted and killed," Fr. Stan narrates, adding that the Hausa who had a strong ethnic identity were conquered and Islamized. Those who maintained their identity, the priest says, are still targeted.

The widely published Theologian decries what he describes as the "negative characterization of Christianity, which can be heard in mosques today", adding, "Young people in Quranic schools are constantly warned that Christians are trying to dominate the country. And because of this, Churches are burnt down and Christians are killed. Yet Muslim leaders continue to deny responsibility in these killings."

Muslim leaders who continue to advance the Almajiri culture of child beggers, requiring children to stay away from school, and to beg on the streets are also to blame for the protracted violence in Nigeria, Fr. Stan says.

"These children don't go to school in the name of rejecting western education. Instead, they beg on the streets and remain in a cycle of illiteracy and poverty," the Nigerian-born Catholic Priest says.

He adds, "The Almajiri has become a huge social problem, especially in northern Nigeria. Once, during COVID-19, the children were driven from the streets. Some of them couldn't even trace their way back home. Because of Alhajira, we have many young people in northern Nigeria who have no social identity."


It is these young men, the Catholic Priest says, that are easily conscripted in terrorist groups such as Boko Haram to wage war on Christians. Some, he says, are easily bought by politicians to carry out various atrocities in the country.

Some of the youth, Fr. Stan went on to says, spend so much time in bushes that it becomes difficult for them to act humanely. He said, "That is why it's so easy for them to carry out these barbaric acts. They have lost all humanity. The illiteracy levels among Muslim children are so high and they can't reason."

Islamization in Nigeria, Fr. Stan said, is characterized by "deeply rooted prejudice, bitterness and miseducation" that he said has "spilled into cultural and religious imagination of the people.”

In the interview with ACI Africa, Fr. Stan challenges Muslim leaders to solidify their work with their Christian counterparts, and in so doing, to delegitimize activists of Islamist groups in Nigeria.

On their part, Christian leaders in Nigeria are doing everything within their power to prevent a religious war in the country, Fr. Stan said during the February 17 interview.

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The Catholic Priest notes that without the intervention of members of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Christians would have possibly retaliated by fighting back their attackers.

"Catholic Bishops and their counterparts at CAN have been very effective in preventing the retaliation of Christians when they are attacked. Without this, we'd probably be having a serious religious war in Nigeria," Fr. Stan said.

He lauded CAN for adopting a non-violence approach to the situation in Nigeria, saying, "Our leaders have insisted on not spilling the blood of the attackers. Some Christians are, of course, against this. They want to fight back. But our leaders have maintained their stance."

Asked whether Christian leaders in Nigeria have exhausted all means to protect the people who continue to suffer at the hands of Islamists, Fr. Stan said, “If anyone had a solution to this problem, we would have implemented a long time ago to stop the suffering of our people. There is no quick fix to this conflict that has been ongoing for over 150 years. But we can’t stop negotiation. Nothing can be enough until we have peace in Nigeria.”

He, however, acknowledged the biggest obstacle to Christian leaders working towards religious tolerance in Nigeria saying, “The conflict in Nigeria has multiple layers of complexity; and Christian leaders lack the power, leverage, and even reach to deal with the challenging complexity.”

“There exists an internal Islamic tension that’s outside the range of Christian leaders. And Christian leaders can only do so much. And they need the goodwill of all religious leaders, including all Muslims,” the Nigerian Professor elaborates.

Fr. Stan paints a picture of gloom in the country, posing, but just how long can Christian leaders endure when persecution of the people of God continues amid their efforts to create an atmosphere of religious tolerance? 

“I have interacted with some Christian leaders who admit that they are getting tired. Killings and displacements continue unabated. Nigeria has become a vast graveyard. The situation keeps getting worse,” the Catholic Priest says.

He adds, “We need joint prayers, Muslims and Christians to restore the strength of our Christian leaders. We need to work together to end this conflict because we are brothers.”

Nigerian authorities also have a role to play in ending the persecution of Christians in the country, Fr. Stan told ACI Africa, and explained, “No amount of footwork without the goodwill of the government can help.”

He further urged religious leaders in Nigeria to be “more than ever before”, politically engaged and to participate strongly in the country’s policy formulation.

“I think it is heretical to tell the religious leaders not to be involved in the politics of Nigeria. Our religious leaders need to come out strongly to talk about issues of governance in the country, and to speak to those in power,” Fr. Stan said.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.