The late Fr. Isaac Achi in 2011 (REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo)

In the early morning hours of Sunday, January 15, a group of armed bandits forced their way into the parish rectory of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in the northern Nigerian village of Kafin Koro. Amid shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” the gunmen gained access to the sleeping quarters of two priests, Fr. Collins Omeh and Fr. Isaac Achi, who prayed and heard each other’s confessions as they were taken hostage. Omeh was shot in the shoulder but managed to flee. Achi was shot in the chest and left to bleed to death as the terrorists—later claimed by the Islamist group Boko Haram—set fire to the premises and escaped.

This is not the first time such an attack has taken place in Nigeria, which has seen a rising tide of violence for several years. Much of it has been directed against Christians, who account for roughly 45 percent of Nigeria’s total population of 200 million, and, in particular, the country’s large Catholic minority (10 percent). Forty people were shot and killed during Mass at a parish in Ocho Diocese last June. During the five previous months, six other Catholic priests were kidnapped and killed across the country. Noting that nearly six thousand Christians were killed for their faith in 2021, the watchdog group Open Doors USA has declared Nigeria the seventh most dangerous place for Christians in the world. Experts warn that insecurity across the country is only likely to intensify in the run-up to the February 25 elections.

The reasons for the violence in Nigeria are varied and complex, and no region of the country is exempt.

The reasons for the violence in Nigeria—Africa’s largest democracy—are varied and complex, and no region of the country is exempt. Many of the attacks on civilians (both Christians and Muslims) can be traced to growing struggles over agricultural resources; aridification due to climate change has intensified the longstanding herder-farmer crisis in north-central Nigeria. Cult and ritual violence has spiked in the southwest, while piracy and oil theft continue near the Niger Delta. Extreme poverty has made kidnapping for ransom routine throughout the country.

American conservatives have accused the Biden administration of “ignoring religious persecution” in Nigeria. Late last year, a group of Republican senators, including Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, released a statement urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to once again designate Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC). Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a CPC designation paves the way for sanctions against countries found to be “engaged in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.” But it’s difficult to see what such a measure would accomplish in Nigeria: if anything, U.S. sanctions would only further weaken the ability of the government to protect innocent Nigerians—of all faiths.

A more effective response is the nuanced one offered by Pope Francis in anticipation of his historic trip to Congo and South Sudan in February. Following Achi’s death, the pope decried violence against Christians and invited the world to join him in prayer—demonstrating compassion and solidarity with victims of religious persecution while preserving his commitment to dialogue with the Islamic world. In an interview, Francis condemned not the absence of religious freedom in Africa, but the predatory attitude of developed countries, which he accused of having a “collective unconscious that says Africa is to be exploited.” Fr. Achi’s martyrdom should not be used to stoke more fear and hostility toward Islam. Let it inspire the kind of humility, courage, and superhuman patience that true peacemaking requires—and that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the February 2023 issue: View Contents
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