In Boko Haram’s Backyard, a Congregation Worships Amid Rubble

By Tom Garba
Tom Garba
Tom Garba
Tom Garba has 15 years experience reporting on religious freedom in Nigeria.
August 10, 2021 Updated: August 11, 2021

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—For years, Christians in Nigeria’s Borno State have watched ISIS terrorists burn their churches, but now they say the government itself is tearing them down.

The demolition of a church in Maiduguri, a city that for 12 years has weathered attacks by the murderous insurgency known as Boko Haram, has ignited a firestorm of controversy. Gov. Babagana Umaru Zulum claims the law is on his side in the destruction of the church, although a popular local pastor says his church is the victim of a “subtle jihad.”

“We are just facing a subtle jihad by the government of Borno, a fight against the Church, and only God in his comfort will deliver us all,” the Rev. Joel Stephen Billi told The Epoch Times, just days after the state government demolished his church Aug. 5.

After a crowd of protestors at the scene threw rocks at the demolition crew, “civilian police” fired at them. A pastor’s son and another man were killed, and five other protestors were injured.

The governor reportedly condemned the shootings on Aug. 6 and ordered an investigation of the Borno Geographical Information System (BOGIS), the agency responsible for the demolition and the security guards.

The church members weren’t deterred from worship. Billi, the president of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, widely known as Ekklisiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), gathered with hundreds of worshippers and held a service on the rubble of the demolished church on Aug. 8.

Epoch Times Photo
The Rev. Stephen Billi. (Courtesy Rev. Stephen Billi)

Bishop Mohammed Williams Naga, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), condemned the killings at an Aug. 7 press conference and demanded that the state rebuild six Christian churches demolished in the last year.

“Unfortunately, we the Christians in the state have been denied Certificate of Occupancy to build Church by the state government since 1979, but we acquire lands/plots by ‘Deed of Assignment’ to build our places of worship,” Naga told a gathering of reporters and church members, according to media reports.

Naga also demanded that the state government end the state ban on the teaching of Christian religious education in its own primary and secondary schools, according to Nigerian media.

A spokesman for Zulum insists that the church lacked a building permit, and that both mosques and churches built without legal permission have been demolished.

“On the EYN Church demolished, let me clarify that the Borno Geographical Information System, BOGIS, has so far demolished nine illegally built mosques and four illegally built churches, as part of ongoing land administration and urban development program,” Alhaji Isa Gusau, a special aide on media, told The Epoch Times in an email. “The issues were mostly about either lack of allocation papers or wrong use of land and in all cases including the EYN, several notices were given.”

The demolished church is a short distance away from a mosque.

“Our church has a certificate of occupancy registered with the Local Church Board (LCB) in Maiduguri, therefore why should it be brought down since the same community has a Mosque near to the church,” Naga told The Epoch Times.

Zulum told media on Aug. 6 that he is committed to rebuilding the state, which for almost a decade has suffered different levels of destruction by Boko Haram insurgents.

“My government is committed to the rebuilding a peaceful Borno state again, I’m working all round to see us coming back as peaceful and harmonious, basking in the spirit of economic vibrancy and unity of our dear state.” Zulum said.

Young adults of the congregation that lost its building have protested vigorously the shootings and have taken revenge on Naga for doing too little to defend churches in the city. A group of men destroyed Naga’s office in Maiduguri and threatened to disrupt peace if the government doesn’t pledge within 24 hours to rebuild the church.

“We are giving the government and the CAN chairman 24 hours to rebuild this church, or else we will attack his house. We will attack the house of the CAN chairman, because since this incident happened, we have not seen him. He has not said anything to us. He is a sellout,” Sunday Ishaku, a youth leader of the destroyed EYN Church, told journalists at the site of the demolished church.

“Our mixers were destroyed; all the chairs and every property were completely destroyed. We were not given the chance to remove anything. Our water factory was also completely demolished. All our tanks were destroyed,” Ishaku said.

“Over 90 percent of worshippers of the demolished Church are Borno indigenes, and as such, they reserved the right to worship in their Faith,” said Pastor Shawulu Auta Ndahi, the resident pastor of EYN, during a press briefing at the site of the destroyed church.

“Borno is our state, and we must worship in the manner we choose,” Ndahi said.

Naga denied the accusations in a conversation with The Epoch Times.

“The youth of the city want an open show of fight with the government, and I am urging them to toe the path of peace,” he said.

Tom Garba
Tom Garba
Tom Garba has 15 years experience reporting on religious freedom in Nigeria.