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Out of the ashes

In Christian communities ravaged by Boko Haram militants, churches find new life among the ruins

Out of the ashes

Destruction in Michika following the occupation by Boko Haram forces. (Photo by Jamie Dean)

Photo by Jamie Dean

Destruction in Michika following the occupation by Boko Haram forces.

Kyodo via AP

Destruction in Michika following the occupation by Boko Haram forces.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters/Landov

Destruction in Michika following the occupation by Boko Haram forces.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters/Landov

Destruction in Michika following the occupation by Boko Haram forces.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters/Landov

Destruction in Michika following the occupation by Boko Haram forces.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters/Landov

Destruction in Michika following the occupation by Boko Haram forces.

Photo by Jamie Dean

Billy stands in front of his torched church.

Photo by Jamie Dean

A crumbling bridge.

Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Cars bypass crumbling bridges with a push from local youth.

Photo by Jamie Dean

Mubi pastors gather outside the charred Lutheran church.

Photo by Jamie Dean

The charred Lutheran church

Photo by Jamie Dean

Bristone stands in the remains of his church office.

Photo by Jamie Dean

A makeshift EYN church next to its burned building in Gombi.

NORTHEASTERN NIGERIA—On the Sunday morning Boko Haram militants attacked the town of Michika in northeastern Nigeria, Pastor Joel Billy gathered the children of his congregation to the front of the church.

Fears were thick, as rumors swirled the jihadists might arrive any day. Some townspeople had fled, but others stayed, realizing they had few options to find safe haven in the rugged terrain nearby.

On a Sunday morning last September, hundreds of Christians gathered for worship at Billy’s church, a congregation of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN). The pastor walked down the platform steps, laid his hands on the children’s heads, and delivered a harrowing message.

“It is the plan of Boko Haram to come and drive us from our homes and from our churches,” he remembers telling the little ones. “If they do come here, never deny Jesus. If they kill your parents, never deny Jesus. If they take you away to the Sambisa Forest, never deny Jesus Christ.”

The pastor returned to the pulpit, preached a sermon, gave a benediction, and went to the vestry to pray with the church’s elders. Billy says a church member arrived at the door with frightful news: “They are coming.”

The pastor heard gunshots and urged his congregation to leave the church quickly. Large gatherings of Christians are prime targets for Boko Haram and one of the reasons the militants often attack on Sundays. Most members carried only their Bibles, and some used hymnbooks as shields against flying bullets.

Some were shot, including an associate pastor. At least 40 church members died in the onslaught. The pastor says the rest scampered into the surrounding wilderness, as militants advanced: “We fled from the altar to the bush.”

Boko Haram held the town for the next five months.

BILLY RECOUNTED THE ATTACK FROM the charred remains of his church’s compound during my visit to Michika in mid-June. The military had retaken the town in February, and the pastor had returned to stay in May.

The pastor’s first visits to the church—day trips in March—were sorrowful: When he entered the compound, he discovered a corpse under a tree. The roof was burned from the sanctuary, and the church’s large structure was damaged beyond repair.

The pastor’s parsonage remained standing, likely because militants used it as a base during their occupation. Any valuables—including the pastor’s laptop and digital camera—were gone.

As we walked through the church’s gated compound, piles of rubble and mounds of ashes filled other burned buildings. Billy stopped at one charred structure and peered inside a small room filled with ash and curled papers.

“This was my library,” he said. “I collected those books for 29 years. I cried for two weeks, but God gave me peace.”

Militants burned 14 out of 15 local EYN churches in Michika. They also torched buildings owned by Anglicans, the Church of Christ in Nations, ECWA (a denomination started by the mission agency SIM), and other Christian groups. Local pastors say perhaps three out of dozens of area churches are still standing. But even those have been vandalized.

Meanwhile, the town of Michika remains eerily vacant. Some residents have returned, and some shop owners have reopened for business, particularly in Muslim neighborhoods, but other streets once bustling with traffic are empty.

Signs of Boko Haram’s occupation are everywhere: streets lined with charred shops and homes, abandoned tanks, and a looted bank. Other buildings are full of huge bullet holes sprayed by AK-47s.

Militants painted over signs written in English (since Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”) and scrawled Arabic phrases across homes and businesses. A government building sits empty and torched, with the frames of burned vehicles filling the overgrown lot. A local resident warns against venturing inside the gate, with fears of land mines still fresh.

The Michika attack was part of a widespread incursion last fall in this corner of northeastern Nigeria’s Adamawa and Borno states. Militants from Boko Haram, an Islamist terror group with allegiance to Islamic State jihadists, have declared their intention to establish a caliphate in Nigeria.

In the last six years, the violence has killed an estimated 13,000 people, often Christians targeted in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north. In cities and villages across several northeastern states, militants have burned churches, slaughtered residents, kidnapped women, raped girls, and perpetrated one of the worst campaigns of persecution against Christians in the 21st century.

More than 1.5 million Nigerians have fled their homes, and a United Nations report in April noted, “The vast majority of the displaced … are staying with host communities with little access to humanitarian support. …”

Large families rent tiny rooms at exorbitant rates in cities like Jos or Abuja, while others live in makeshift camps rarely visited by outsiders, including government officials.

The Nigerian military launched a belated counterattack against Boko Haram in January. The incumbent president, a Christian named Goodluck Jonathan, hoped to push back militants before the presidential elections—aiming to accomplish in six weeks what he had failed to try for six years.

The Nigerian military routed many militants (with the help of surrounding nations), recaptured territory, and rescued hundreds of kidnapped women and children, but voters still ousted Jonathan. They elected a new president: Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim who has vowed to fight Boko Haram.

The fight does continue. Though Boko Haram has lost territory, the group has increased guerilla attacks: Militants conducted more suicide bombings in the first five months of this year than all of last year, often using young girls strapped with explosives.

During the first weekend of July, militants bombed a mosque and a Muslim restaurant in the Middle Belt city of Jos, killing at least 44 people. The mosque’s imam had criticized Boko Haram in the past. He survived the attack. Militants also attacked a church service in Potiskum on July 5, killing five people, including the pastor.

Buhari is set to meet President Barack Obama at the White House on July 20, and many will be watching to see if the discussions include Islamic extremism and the widespread persecution of Christians, though Obama has said little about those realities in Nigeria.

Some U.S. officials have called the Boko Haram insurgency a political conflict driven by militants’ poverty and lack of education. But for Nigerian Christians who have endured door-to-door searches, with jihadists ordering them to convert to Islam or die, the aim of the terrorists’ unholy war is clear.

As Pastor Billy told the children of Michika last September, “They want to remove our cross.”

Removing the cross is a Boko Haram trademark. Even when militants conduct lightning raids—wreaking havoc on a village before quickly passing to the next town—they often take time to wrench crosses from church walls before setting the structures ablaze.

Walking through the remains of burnt churches in June, I witnessed the glaring, bare spots on church walls where crosses once hung. In some cases, the militants had scaled church steeples to remove crosses from substantial heights. At Pastor Billy’s church in Michika, a hole is smashed through one side of a brick cross in the front wall of the torched building.

But despite the ruined structures and missing symbols, churches remain.

In some towns, congregations have pitched tarps in the hulls of burned buildings to conduct Sunday worship services. Others have erected temporary structures of hand-cut wood and tin roofs for Sunday services sometimes hosting hundreds of Christian returnees.

The scenes are reminiscent of Old Testament Jews rebuilding the ruined walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, as the ancient ruler Sanballat jeered: “Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” They responded—like many Nigerian Christians today—with a resounding yes.

“God didn’t make a mistake in placing us here,” says Pastor Billy near his own church’s temporary structure of tin and wood. “It is our heart’s desire that the church will remain here until Christ returns.”

FOR NOW, RETURNING AND REMAINING IS BRAVE, BUT DIFFICULT. Some villagers return to war-ravaged areas because they can’t afford to live in other towns, or they grow weary of living in squalid camps. Many simply want to return to farms and homelands their families have inhabited for generations.

In mid-June, long lines at military checkpoints backed up the road north to towns like Michika, Mubi, Gombi, and other villages once invaded by Boko Haram. As the bumpy road climbed farther north, the checkpoints grew more rugged: Pieces of car bumpers and tree logs formed roadblocks tended by local vigilantes brandishing bows and arrows and wearing long daggers around their necks.

Bridges remain split open and crumbling from Boko Haram explosives. Cars and trucks bypassing the broken bridges tumble through streams, while local youth collect a small toll for pushing vehicles through the water. The rocky hillsides are dotted with police barracks, churches, and schools torched by Boko Haram.

Beyond Michika, a rutted road leads to the town of Mubi, a commercial hub near the border of Cameroon, attacked multiple times in recent years. Militants seized the town in October (renaming it “City of Islam”), and the military recaptured it in November.

The terrorists’ rampage here followed Boko Haram’s usual pattern: Kill, steal, and destroy.

Indeed, in many areas, residents and villagers say the militants often divide the labor: Some kill men; others steal women, children, and property; and others destroy structures left behind. Some drive empty trucks to haul the looted possessions of poverty-stricken villagers.

In rural areas, villagers said the militants had looted stockpiles of maize stored at local churches—the first fruits of Christian farmers’ crops and their primary method of tithing.

These days, the town of Mubi is more populated than villages and other towns like Michika, with many residents crowding local markets and filling narrow streets with traffic. Many shops and homes are still standing, though others bear the marks of the recent pillage.

On one street corner, five rows of Muslim men bow low, saying pre-Ramadan prayers in the hot afternoon sun. Though some mosques have been partially damaged, others stand untouched by militants.

Turn a corner, climb a rutted hill, and the sound of singing wafts through the crowded streets. Hundreds of Christians from churches across the area pack shoulder-to-shoulder in a Lutheran church building for an inter-denominational prayer service.

If Christians worry about the dangers of gathering in large groups after the recent attack, it doesn’t show here. Women in brightly colored dresses join men praying and singing loudly in a church burned by Boko Haram less than eight months ago.

While many fires have damaged churches too badly to rebuild, this congregation was able to replace its pitched roof two weeks earlier. The rest of the compound, including a Sunday school building, the parsonage, and a van remain charred and full of thick ashes. Inside the church building, a burned set of drums still sits on the platform, untouched like artifacts of war.

In the ruins of the parsonage outside, the pastors of local congregations talk about the damage: The pastor of the Lutheran church says 200 of his congregation’s 600 members have returned to Mubi. At least six died in the attack. He says 10 out of 20 Lutheran churches in the area burned.

A pastor from the denomination ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All) says militants burned his church and seven other ECWA buildings here. A deacon from the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN) said all 14 EYN churches were destroyed.

Amos Babale, pastor of a Baptist church in Mubi for the past 20 years, says militants killed a youth leader and kidnapped a deaconess from his congregation: “My church has been razed down.” He says terrorists destroyed nearly 50 out of 120 Baptist churches in the region.

Another Baptist pastor lost his church and home in the attack and says he’s trying to encourage his congregation to face trials with courage: “The Lord Jesus told us we would face persecution, and we have seen it. It’s happened to other believers, and now it’s our turn. We should take heart.”

A couple of miles away, members of an EYN church took heart with joyful singing, holding three different choir practices in the open air while the sun set over the hull of their blackened church building.

OTHER CHRISTIANS ARE MUCH earlier in the process of recovery. In the town of Gombi, just south of Mubi, residents are returning to their homes after a Boko Haram attack in February, but outlying villages still have sparse populations.

Dirt paths lead from villages across open fields to the edge of the Sambisa Forest, Boko Haram’s stronghold, less than 25 miles away. In the village of Guyuku, residents say militants used the dirt paths to conduct reconnaissance missions ahead of the February attack. That night they arrived in the rural village on motorcycles and trucks, executing their rampage by the beams of headlights.

Most villagers heard the militants approach and fled, though some said they heard the cries of “Allahu akbar” (Arabic for “Allah is great”) in the distance.

What’s left of the village is pitiful.

The Christian villagers were already subsistence farmers, but their simple clay homes sit charred and crumbling. Their few possessions are destroyed, though a handful of pots and pans remain.

Militants looted medicine and supplies from a government-run health clinic, destroying the only healthcare service for miles. Broken vials of glass litter the concrete floor, and villagers suffering from poisonous snakebites or deadly infections have no nearby recourse for treatment.

Residents say no government officials or aid organizations have visited their village since the attack. Our small contingent of visitors was the only outside group the villagers had seen since their return.

Less than a mile away, another group of villagers face the same deprivation but have begun rebuilding their community. A group of local youths spent two weeks cutting down trees and gathering tin to construct a temporary shelter outside the remains of their EYN church. The young men built the shelter—and their pastor’s home—before rebuilding their own dwellings. One man says the reason is simple: “The church is the center of our hearts.”

That commitment is encouraging to Christopher Bristone, the 50-year-old pastor of a Lutheran church in Gombi, a few miles down the road. In the hull of his own roofless church, Bristone points to steep, rocky hills his congregation climbed to escape Boko Haram. His younger brother and nephew died in an attack.

Bristone returned to Gombi within days after the Nigerian military drove out Boko Haram. He knew church members needed him, despite the danger. “A pastor has to be careful of running away from his sheep,” he says. “The pastor is always the last man to stand. If I should be a martyr, let me be the first.”

That’s more than lofty rhetoric. Bristone is well-known in his town, and he knows he could be a target. But he is committed to preserving a church in the town where he grew up and says he’s not concerned about rebuilding the church structure: “I want to place my life on rugged evangelism.”

Other churches are willing to focus on rugged Christianity as they recover as well. An EYN church next door is meeting under a tin roof in the shadow of a steeple stripped of its cross. A banner behind a makeshift pulpit declares the theme the church is studying this summer from Romans 8: “We are more than conquerors.”

FOR MANY CHRISTIANS, CONQUERING CAN LOOK LIKE SURVIVING. In the cities removed from some of the worst of Boko Haram’s ongoing violence, some victims are recovering from physical and emotional trauma suffered back in their home villages.

Christian groups like Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) and Stefanos Foundation help pay for travel, hospital bills, relief supplies, and support for Christians victimized by Boko Haram and other Muslim extremists.

Local churches also offer help, but many are overwhelmed with their own needs. (Some church leaders say they wish Christians in southern Nigeria were more galvanized by the attacks and cite a need for more information to reach those congregations.)

In one private hospital, Christians transported from another state filled several rooms. VOM was paying the hospital bills for the injured, mostly members of the Christian Reformed Church.

One 8-year-old boy limped painfully as he recovered from injuries sustained from a land mine he picked up while gathering firewood. The explosion ripped off his right arm and badly burned his leg. Others had gunshot wounds and machete blows.

In one room, 34-year-old Micah recounted militants ambushing his village and demanding he convert from Christianity to Islam. Micah’s response: “God forbid.”

The militants fatally shot his wife and butchered Micah with a machete. He survives with a missing right arm, a badly damaged left arm, and five motherless children. When I asked how Christians could pray for him, his immediate reply: “Pray that I will stand fast.”

It’s a prayer uttered by other Christians shot, maimed, and bereaved by Boko Haram in recent years. A 34-year-old Christian woman I met lost her husband and two young sons to a militant attack and survived a severe machete wound to her arm and throat. The young widow now cares for her surviving 11-year-old son, a quiet, sweet boy who sits close to his mother’s side.

In a voice weakened by her injury, she asks for prayers to “raise her son in God’s way.” But still sensing her greatest need, she also asks, “Pray that I will hold onto Christ with both hands.” 

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


  • Leeper
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:00 pm

    The silence of our government leaders is defining.

  • burningheart's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:00 pm

    May our Lord receive the reward of His suffering!  May we have awakening throughout the west as we read these stories.  Thank you for having the courage to post them.

  • Buddy's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:00 pm

    Thanks Jamie for showing us this truth. God protect and bless our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. We MUST pray for them.

  •  Varenikje's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:00 pm

    I am speechless.