VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Vatican's ambassador to Nigeria is downplaying the role of Islam in the persecution of Christians as this could "rekindle division" between Muslims and Christians.
"When we say a conflict is religious, we give it a moral justification. This makes the solution even more difficult, because everyone thinks he is in the right because he does it in the name of God, in the name of religion," Abp. Antonio Filipazzi told Vatican News Friday.
Stressing it was important "not to present conflicts as if they are exclusively caused by religion," the papal nuncio to Nigeria was silent on the jihadi Muslim militia Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen.
But experts on religious persecution said both Islamic groups were specifically targeting Christians — including significant numbers of Catholics — expressly stating jihadi motivation for the massacre of Christians.
Filipazzi did not name the two groups even once, even though a preface to the Vatican News' interview acknowledged the role of "Boko Haram jihadists" in the "attacks and kidnappings" of 40,000 people in northeastern Nigeria alone.
Instead, arguing that "violence in Nigeria is a multiple issue," the nuncio cited ethnic clashes, kidnappings for extortion, terrorism and armed gangs as causes of conflict.
In comments to Church Militant, Dr. Martin Parsons, independent consultant on global persecution of Christians, said that Filipazzi's remarks failed to account for the jihadi-based slaughter and the Islamic slave trade kidnappings perpetrated by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen.
"Of course, we want peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims, but peace without justice is oppression under another name," Dr. Parsons said, responding to Filipazzi's claim that "the discussion on division, precisely in the name of religion, must be very prudent, because in the past, as well as today, Muslims and Christians coexisted and coexist peacefully."
"For too long the religious motivation of the violence suffered by Nigerian Christians has been ignored," Dr. Parsons, who is also an Islamic scholar, asserted.
"For years, the U.S. State Department insisted the specific targeting of churches and Christians in northern Nigeria was simply a 'socio-economic conflict' — despite Boko Haram specifically claiming their actions were an Islamic jihad," noted Parsons, a former aid worker to Afghanistan.
"It wasn't until November 2013 that the U.S. finally recognized Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. That was less than a year before the Global Terrorism Index listed it as the world's deadliest terrorist organization — slaughtering even more people than Islamic State (ISIS) were killing in Syria and Iraq," he added.
In the local Hausa language, "Boko Haram" means "Western education is forbidden." The full Arabic name of the militant Muslim group is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad, which means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."
Parsons explained that there had been a significant development in the persecution of Christians with the rise of attacks by Fulani herdsmen.
"Now even Boko Haram has been overtaken by the numbers killed by Fulani herdsmen who are specifically targeting Christian villages in Nigeria's middle belt," he said.
"Yet again, we hear naïve claims that this is simply a 'land dispute' between nomads and settled pastoralists even though the victims are overwhelmingly Christian and animist villagers," he said, disputing Abp. Filipazzi's assertion of both "Muslim victims and Christian victims of this violence."
Parsons elaborated on the Fulani's Islamic basis for the slave trade which involved kidnapping Christians:
The truth is the Fulani are repeating a pattern of attacks carried out by their ancestors before the British took control in the early 20th century. The Fulani were then part of the Sokoto Caliphate — an Islamic empire — which regularly sent out slave-raiding expeditions against the Christian and animist villages in Nigeria's middle belt, attacks justified by the legitimization of slavery for non-Muslims in Sharia law.
"Those who fail to recognize that the teaching of Sharia on jihad is a significant motivating factor in these attacks risk worsening the horrific suffering which is already rapidly escalating among Christians and other minorities in Nigeria," Parsons warned.
The papal nuncio conceded that "in the southern area of Kaduna, Christians — who are particularly numerous in that area — have had to mourn many victims, have had to complain of suffering because they have been hit, driven out and live in a state of danger."
However, "religion is one of the factors; there is the ethnic factor, there is the economic factor, there are many factors of this violence that are present in different percentages in different situations," Filipazzi argued.
During the Angelus on Aug. 15, Pope Francis prayed "for the population of the northern region of Nigeria, victims of violence and terrorist attacks" without using the word "persecution."
The pontiff, who has rarely addressed the violence in Nigeria, refrained from naming Christians as victims, jihadis as perpetrators or Islam as the primary motivating factor for the slaughter, which has reached genocidal levels, according to Bp. Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto.
Moreover, in an Aug. 8 statement on the violence, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) refused to name jihad, Boko Haram or the Fulani herdsmen, alluding only to "innocent people brutally murdered by religious fundamentalists."
Instead, in September 2019, the CBCN condemned "attacks" by traditionalist Catholics on Pope Francis "as the proverbial ill wind that blows no one any good."
The International Committee on Nigeria (ICON) reports that Boko Haram was responsible for nearly 35,000 deaths there between 2015 and 2020, while Fulani jihadis murdered more than 17,000 between 2010 and 2020.
In June, ICON praised a new executive order signed by President Donald Trump directing the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat religious freedom violations. The order called for a budget of $50 million for programs to fight religious violence and persecution of Christians.
A 50-page June report by the U.K. All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG) underlined the Islamic-based violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen.
Titled "Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?" the report said the parliamentary committee had "received evidence to suggest many Fulani herders in Nigeria do adhere to an extremist ideology" and "adopt a comparable strategy to Boko Haram ... and demonstrate a clear intent to target Christians and potent symbols of Christian identity."
In contrast to the papal nuncio's claims, the report cited the Anglican bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen who concluded: "the religious dimension is a significantly exacerbating factor" in clashes between farmers and herders and "targeted violence against Christian communities in the context of worship suggests that religion plays a key part."
Nigeria's Stefanos Foundation, among other advocacy groups, also confirmed to the APPG that "the violence is primarily for Islamic territorial expansion and the advancement of Sharia (Islamic law)," noting that "the perpetrators of the violence are Muslim extremists who cannot submit to any other law apart from Islamic law."