By Ngala Killian Chimtom, Africa Correspondent
NIGERIA (Crux) — Four nuns who were kidnapped in Nigeria’s southern Imo State on Sunday, Aug. 21, have been returned to their community.
Sisters Johannes Nwodo, Christabel Echemazu, Liberata Mbamalu, and Benita Agu were freed unconditionally — meaning without the payment of a ransom — according to a statement issued Aug. 23 by members of the Sisters of Jesus the Savior (the Saviourite Sisters, or SJS) to which the nuns belong.
“With hearts full of joy, the Sisters of Jesus the Savior wish to announce the unconditional and safe release of four of our sisters who were abducted around Okigwe-Umulolo on the 21 of August 2022,” reads the statement signed by the director of the order, Sister Zita Ihedoro.
“Today is a memorable day for us. Therefore, we wish to share this joy with all men and women of goodwill who, in one way or the other, have contributed to the quick and safe release of our dear sisters,” the statement adds.
“We sincerely appreciate and thank you for your prayers and moral support during this difficult moment,” Sister Zita said before imploring Jesus “to bless, protect and provide for you, especially in times of difficulty.”
The four nuns were kidnapped along a local highway on Sunday morning on their way to a thanksgiving Mass.
It’s still not known who kidnapped them or why, but it is increasingly becoming clear that Nigeria’s Christians in recent years have become targets for attacks, kidnappings, and even killings.
A campaign to wipe out Christianity
The kidnapping of the four Catholic Nuns has highlighted what some believe is the disquieting reality of a deliberate attempt to annihilate Christianity in Africa’s most populous nation.
“I am shocked (at the spate of kidnappings) because I know many priests and religious in that part of the country,” Johan Viljoen, director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI), a peace and justice organization of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), told Crux.
“We are dealing here with a sustained campaign to wipe out Christianity in general and the Catholic church in particular. No Christian is safe,” he said.
The kidnapping and sometimes killing of Christians in Nigeria have become legion, with some even suspecting that the country’s president is complicit in the crimes.
“These accusations are informed by the fact that [President Muhamadou Buhari] himself is the patron of Miyetti Allah, a Fulanis’ organization. No ‘armed gunmen’ are ever arrested or stand trial. His government has stood for the right of ‘cattle herders’ to occupy any land. Governors who have tried to rein them in face opposition from the federal government,” Viljoen said.
Marcela Szymanski, head of advocacy for Aid to the Church in Need International, explained that on a daily basis, “Islamist extremists and criminals in Nigeria abduct the sole providers of social services to the most vulnerable, leaving thousands destitute and hungry.”
While all this is happening, the government, he said, “looks the other way, and the West calls them ‘preferred partners’ because they have oil and gas.”
“It is likely that members of the party in power get kickbacks from oil [companies]; they couldn’t care less about the starvation of their own citizens,” Szymanski said. “We see the same pattern in most mineral-rich nations, who count among the poorest in the world.”
A Christian persecution watchdog group, International Christian Concern, classified Nigeria in a May 15, 2022, report as the scariest place in the world in which to be a Christian.
“Christian communities in the Middle Belt of Nigeria have effectively suffered a 20-year-long genocide,” the report stated.
Attacks on Christians have been rising in recent years. In early June, at least 40 worshippers were killed in a church attack in Owo, located in Ondo state in Southwest Nigeria.
Data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) showed that by June, there were already 23 separate attacks on Church premises. In 2021, there were a total of 31 attacks, and in 2020, there were 18 attacks.
Blame for continued attacks on Christians, whether from marauding Fulani herdsmen or Boko Haram insurgents, has frequently been placed on the doorstep of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
Sister Nkiru Esther Ezedinachi of the Congregation of the Handmaids of Holy Child Jesus, the first Indigenous congregation in the whole of west Africa, qualifies Buhari’s government as a disaster when it comes to dealing with the problem.
“Buhari’s government is a mess, and people are now convinced that he has a different and evil agenda for Nigerian Christians and all non-Fulani – Islamisation and Fulanization,” she told Crux.
“Security in the country is now zero,” she said before explaining that there is a growing belief that the government is complicit.
“They (the government) encourage the Jihadist terrorists and even order the release of those apprehended,” she said.
“Buhari’s officials are known to be sponsors of the Islamic terrorists,” the religious sister alleged, a charge Buhari has repeatedly denied.
“If Buhari and his cabals were not with them (the terrorists), insecurity by now would have been a thing of the past,” she insisted.
“Though there are some Muslims who are victims of the Jihadist terrorism in Nigeria, especially the non-Fulani ones,” she told Crux. “Christians are paying the highest price, be it in kidnappings, killings, raping, extortion of money even by Government security agents, burning of churches, etc.”