The dark side of faith in Africa

By Othman O'Malley

The town of Yelwa sits squarely in the “middle belt” of Nigeria, an area where the Christian majority south and the Muslim majority north grind away at each other in spasms of religious violence that would make an inquisitor blush. An article in the current Atlantic Monthly “God’s Country” by Eliza Griswold, recounts one of these episodes of religious violence.

There were bullet-ridden bodies strewn around. A church was set on fire by an arsonist’s hand. Then the school and the nursery were set ablaze. Members of the congregation were shot by armed gunman. In all, 78 Christians were killed and placed in a mass grave. Fortunately, the pastor of the destroyed church survived but lost seven members of his family that day. This was the result of a coordinated attack on a Christian church by Muslims in the Nigerian town of Yelwa. A week later, Yelwa was surrounded by hundreds of armed men, some sporting tags identifying them as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria.

What followed was a two day orgy of retribution resulting in the massacre of patients in a clinic and 660 deaths. The Muslim women and children of Yelwa were rounded up, taken to nearby villages and were raped for weeks. Nigerian soldiers eventually went from hut to hut and released these victims but 50 of these women never made it back to their families.

Scenes like these are not new to Africa. The Muslim contribution to religious violence on the continent of Africa is well documented and has received extensive coverage in the Western media. However, the role of Western and African Christian leaders in these conflicts has been overlooked.

Take the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola’s response to the inter-communal violence that I mentioned earlier. Instead of delivering a message of reconciliation he said, “The church says turn the other cheek, but now there is no other cheek to turn.” Then, Rick Warren, author of the hugely successful book “The Purpose Driven Life” thought he ought to chime in. In an article for Time, the pudgy pastor of disaster wrote a piece on Peter Akinola that made one wait in anticipation for them to French kiss. In only 235 words, he was able to offer Akinola tacit support for ethnic cleansing. He called Peter Akinola, a brave “biblical” man who, “.has been criticized for recent remarks of frustration[.]” toward Muslim-Christian violence, “But Christians are routinely attacked in parts of Nigeria.”

When an unequivocal condemnation of the violence on both sides was needed, Akinola and Warren decided to appeal to sectarianism. Bravo. But I have to be fair to Archbishop Akinola. It would be difficult for him to have done otherwise. After all, he is the head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, the very same group whose members took part in retaliatory attack on the Muslims of Yelwa. I wonder if Rick Warren knew that?

“Well Othman, that is one silly example,” you say. Well here are some more. Pat Robertson, one of the most prominent Evangelical figures in the United States, invested in a gold mining venture in Liberia with its leader Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Liberians and is now on trial for crimes against humanity. The Guardian reported that hundreds of young Nigerian children are being killed and thousands more permanently scarred by parents who are convinced by their pastors that their kids are witches. If they don’t have the money for an exorcism, they are told to get rid of them.

The article goes on further to say, “[.]it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and Evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these beliefs.” If one believes that demons can possess people and God can induce you to speak in tongues in church as many Pentecostals do, is it really that hard to convince someone that their child is a witch?

In America, there are religious groups that ignorantly sound off on foreign conflicts or purposely exploit people or reinforce local customs with their poisoned theology. Groups and individuals who cause harm through their preaching should be brought to justice in the U.S. Just because these abuses occur in Africa does not mean that we should ignore them.

Othman is a senior in political science and is reading more about faith-based violence in Africa.