In 2009, Boko Haram militants entered Monica Dna’s home in the middle of the night. Monica watched them behead her husband and slit the throats of two of her three sons. Then, turning to her, they slashed her left arm as she raised it in defense, cut her throat, and left her for dead.
A neighbor found her still alive and took her to the hospital. Six years later, after numerous operations to repair her throat and her arm, she needs still more surgery. She tells me, though, that dealing with the trauma of the attack and the loss of her husband and sons is harder than recovering physically. She manages to endure, she says, because of the strength she receives from Jesus. Much comfort and support has also come from other displaced widows and friends who have found a home in Jos, the town in central Nigeria where I met her.
Her story is one of thousands emerging from Nigeria, where more than 1.5 million people have been displaced by violence in areas subject to attacks by the Islamist militant organization Boko Haram. The group was first formed in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, as a movement opposed to government security forces and Western influence – boko haram is often translated as “Western education is forbidden.” In March 2015, the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau formally pledged allegiance to ISIS, and since then Boko Haram’s official name has been Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah – “West African Province” of the Islamic State. Around twenty thousand square miles of territory are under its control.
Boko Haram was formed in 2002 as a movement opposed to government security forces and Western influence – boko haram is often translated as “Western education is forbidden.”
When the militants started appearing a decade ago, people here tell me, they would first enter towns claiming to be looking for a mosque to pray in. Soon after, they started giving out money to help Muslims develop their businesses; many took this money without understanding Boko Haram’s goals. Next they attacked a few churches and individual Christians. With time they unveiled their plan of overthrowing the government and creating an Islamic state. In 2009, they launched a campaign of assassinations, bombings, and abductions targeting both Christians and non-cooperating Muslims, leading Nigeria’s president in 2013 to declare a state of emergency in the three northeastern states – Borno, Yobe, and Ademawa – where the group is strongest.
In April 2014, Boko Haram gained the world’s attention when it abducted 276 girls from their school in the town of Chibok in Borno. Of the abducted girls, 178 belong to Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria. Founded by American missionaries in 1923, EYN has since become the largest Christian denomination in northeastern Nigeria.
As a Brethren church, EYN belongs to the Anabaptist family of churches, which traces its roots to the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation and also includes the Amish, the Hutterites, the Mennonites, and the Bruderhof. A fundamental tenet of Anabaptism for almost five centuries has been Christian pacifism – a conviction for which Anabaptist churches have often paid dearly, targeted repeatedly for refusing to perform military service or to take up arms in self-defense during times of unrest.
EYN, as an African branch of this tradition, is now having its commitment to nonviolence tested like few Anabaptist churches have for centuries. Throughout 2013 and 2014, EYN congregations suffered heavily from Boko Haram violence. As of June 2015, over ten thousand EYN members have been killed, and more than 170,000 members, including 2,092 pastors and evangelists, have been displaced within Nigeria or in neighboring countries. Boko Haram has destroyed 278 church buildings and 1,674 preaching points. Of the denomination’s fifty church districts, only seven are functioning. In October 2014, militants even destroyed EYN’s national headquarters in Mubi, Adamawa, so the church set up temporary headquarters in the relative safety of Jos, where many displaced members have gathered.
Other Christians in Nigeria have responded to Boko Haram’s violence by taking up arms against the group; some congregations have even formed militias. By contrast, EYN members have largely remained true to their nonviolent convictions. As their stories attest, this faithfulness despite persecution has allowed them to witness to the peace and forgiveness of Christ’s way, even toward their enemies.