Amid the world’s troubles, clergy face extreme risks in some regions, according to a new report by Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic foundation.
“In 2023, many Christians, and especially clergy and religious, paid a heavy price for their commitment to common good, human rights, religious freedom and the freedom of the communities and nations they serve,” the agency reported in January.
The report lists “14 murders, including 11 priests, one bishop, one religious brother and one seminarian” among Catholic clergy in 2023. It says seven of the killings took place in circumstances that were either unclear or not directly related to any confirmed incident of persecution and included “a bishop and a priest in the USA, a priest in Colombia, a priest in Mexico, a religious brother in Cameroon, a priest in Burkina Faso and a priest in Nigeria.”
Those 14 deaths are a decrease from the 18 registered in 2022.
Apart from death, clergy faced arrests and kidnappings, the report says. “A total of 132 Catholic priests and religious were either arrested, kidnapped or murdered during 2023. This represents an increase from 124 in 2022. These are, however, the confirmed cases, the number could be higher since in some countries reliable information is difficult to obtain.”
With regard to kidnapping, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is cited as the country with the highest number of abducted clerics: “Nigeria leads the list by far, with 28 cases, including three religious sisters, whereas the only other country with multiple cases was Haiti, with two. Other countries where priests were kidnapped include Mali and Burkina Faso, while in Ethiopia one religious sister was abducted.”
Further, “there was one case in Nigeria of a monk who was murdered by his kidnappers; otherwise, the vast majority of those kidnapped ended up being released, with the exception of four priests: John Bako Shekwolo from Nigeria, and Joël Yougbaré, from Burkina Faso, who have been missing since 2019, and Joseph Igweagu and Christopher Ogide, both from Nigeria, missing since 2022.”
The report identifies Nicaragua and Belarus as countries leading the pack of “authoritarian regimes that have resorted to detaining priests and religious in order to punish the church for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations, or merely for trying to operate freely.”
Justine John Dyikuk, a Nigerian Catholic priest and Ph.D. student at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow, who until recently worked in the northern part of Nigeria, told Baptist News Global the ACN report didn’t surprise him and it aligns with similar reports from other groups about the country.
“I can confirm that religious leaders in Nigeria work under fear of armed bandits, commercial kidnappers, arsonists and Islamists,” he said. “From my work in the northeastern part of the country, where I served as a priest, I can tell you that the security situation keeps getting worse by the day.”
He explained: “Although churches try to set up their own security apparatus, the ultimate security is God since government appears helpless in the circumstance.”
What is happening in Nigeria is “coordinated, strategic and executed as organized crime,” he said, and it is similar to what happens in other African countries.
“For example, Global Christian Relief reports that by 2023, Islamists controlled 40% of Burkina Faso, affecting over 1 million Christians. Jihadists have exploited political instability in Mali and Burkina Faso to perpetuate attacks on Christians. The situation is not any different in Algeria and Ethiopia where there are increasing cases of attacks on churches.”
A different report by Christianity Today, he noted, showed out of the 11 hardest places to be a Christian in the world, six are in Africa — Somalia, Libya, Eritrea, Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan. Another by Open Doors says five out of 10 places where Christians face the most violence globally are in Africa — Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Anthony Akaeze is a Nigerian-born freelance journalist who lives in Houston. He covers Africa for BNG.