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Global Anabaptism: The persecution of Nigerian Christians

9.30. 2014 Written By: John D. Roth 1,083 read

Christ is just like the human body. … If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it. … You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.—1 Corinthians 12:12a, 26-27, CEB

On the night of April 14, armed men associated with the radical Islamic group Boko Haram, stormed the dormitory of a Christian school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok and forced some 230 girls into a convoy of trucks before disappearing into the dense forest along the Nigerian-Cameroon border.

For a time, the story of the abduction dominated the news. Now, six months later, the plight of the kidnapped girls and the larger context of violence against Christians in Nigeria has nearly faded from memory, nudged aside by reports of new atrocities elsewhere in the world.

Yet the story of suffering in Nigeria should not be forgotten, especially by Mennonites.

One detail rarely reported in the news is that a disproportionate number of the victims of violence in northeastern Nigeria—including the majority of girls abducted on April 14—are members of the Church of the Brethren (CoB). Founded in Germany in 1708, the CoB’s history is intertwined with groups in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Like Mennonites, the CoB practice voluntary baptism, emphasize service and, as one of the so-called Historic Peace Churches, support Christian nonviolence and peacemaking.

The CoB has had a mission in northeastern Nigeria since 1923, with a strong emphasis on schools, clinics, hospitals and agricultural development. In 1972, the CoB church—known locally as the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN)—became an independent denomination, with its own indigenous leadership. Since then, the group has grown to a membership of nearly 200,000, with estimated attendance of 1 million, making it the largest CoB national body in the world.

Although the abduction of the EYN schoolgirls in Chibok last spring captured global attention, the incident was part of a much larger pattern of persecution the EYN has endured for nearly a decade. In a recent plea to the United Nations, Samuel Dante Dali, EYN president, begged the world to take note of the suffering of EYN church members “who are being slaughtered, abducted, enslaved and reduced to sexual objects.“ Since 2009, at least 1,500 EYN members have been killed. Some 1,941 houses and properties—including more than 100 EYN churches—have been burned or bombed. The church has been forced to close five of its districts, and thousands of EYN families are among the 150,000 Nigerians who have been displaced by the violence.

In 1748, a radical branch of the Church of the Brethren living in a monastic-like community in Ephrata, Pa., undertook the enormous task of translating and publishing the first German edition of Martyrs Mirror. In the centuries that followed, the gift of that text from the CoB had a profound impact on the emerging identity of Mennonites in North America.

As I have followed the EYN story over the past few months, I have been deeply moved by the way their responses to persecution has echoed the themes of Martyrs Mirror.

Like the Anabaptists, EYN church leaders have called their members to the holy discipline of nonviolence, even as other Christians have participated in retaliatory raids against Muslim mosques and homes.

Like the Anabaptists, EYN members have responded to their suffering in song. Virtually every church has an active women’s choir whose singing, according to EYN member Zakariya Musa, is a central part of worship. Singing makes people feel “refreshed and liberated.“ When people sing, she continues, “they tend to forget their sorrows—the violence, killings, destructions and threats—and open up joyfully together under the roof in worship.”

Like the Anabaptists, the EYN church—along with its global family—is committed to the practice of prayer. Recently, dozens of CoB congregations throughout North America united for a week of sustained prayer and fasting on behalf of the brothers and sisters in Nigeria, sharing with the Psalmist their voices of their lament, despair, trust and hope.

In the 17th century, Mennonites living in the Netherlands took note of the suffering of their Swiss Brethren cousins by sending fact-finding delegations, raising funds for refugee relief, making direct appeals to government authorities and carefully recording the names and stories of those who were being persecuted. As heirs to that tradition, Mennonites in North America should be attentive to the current plight of the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review. This is from the “Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church” column in The Mennonite.

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