|Update, Sept. 10, 2014: EYN denominational staff and families are safe, Church of the Brethren general secretary Stan Noffsinger has learned through a telephone call from EYN president Samuel Dali.
The Nigerian church leadership made the decision to evacuate many staff and their families who live on the EYN headquarters compound in northeastern Nigeria, in the face of a swift advance on the area by the Boko Haram insurgents. Also leaving the compound were Kulp Bible College students and families.
However, some key church leaders remain at the headquarters, and the church has not totally closed its offices.
“The good news is we now know that staff and their families are safe,” said Noffsinger, “and the EYN leadership continues to move forward and care for the people of EYN, and plan for the future of the church.
“The EYN president expressed profound appreciation for the outpouring of love and prayer that they are receiving from the church in the US and around the world. News of the situation of EYN is being followed by the ecumenical church worldwide, and we have received expressions of concern and prayer and offers to assist us in supporting EYN and the people of Nigeria.”
The length of time that Kulp Bible College and the EYN secondary school will be closed is unclear. Also unclear is how long most of the staff and their families will be away from the area.
In scattered reports received piecemeal by e-mail, text, and Facebook since the weekend, it appears that most if not all the denominational staff of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) and their families have left the EYN headquarters as Boko Haram insurgents advance on the area.
Brethren Disaster Ministries has directed a grant of $20,000 from the Emergency Disaster Fund (EDF) to EYN’s effort to receive and house refugees in central Nigeria, and the Church of the Brethren Global Mission and Service also has directed $10,000 to the effort.
EYN leaders and staff leave headquarters and homes
On Saturday, EYN leaders telephoned Church of the Brethren general secretary Stan Noffsinger to report the temporary closing of Kulp Bible College (see www.brethren.org/news/2014/prayer-is-requested-as-eyn-closes-college.html ). The college is located next to the EYN headquarters on a compound in northeastern Nigeria.
Since then, Noffsinger said he and others on the Church of the Brethren staff have maintained contact with EYN leaders by phone and text as they flee. It is not clear if EYN has closed its headquarters or if some staff remain there. Also unclear is how EYN staff and families are traveling, whether they have been able to get transport in vehicles, and how far they have gone in search of safe locations. At least one KBC student fled on foot, in company with others, Noffsinger knows from texts he received during the night from that student.
“We have grave concern for their health and wellbeing,” Noffsinger said. “This crisis is exacting a huge toll, physically and emotionally.”
As staff and families left the EYN headquarters and Bible college, they also were leaving their homes and belongings behind. EYN had been planning for this eventuality, Noffsinger said, and was able to move some of the church’s important documents to another location in central Nigeria. However, Facebook posts and texts reveal that a swift Boko Haram advance forced EYN leaders and staff to leave quickly and unexpectedly.
The EYN district secretary for the area asked for prayer, via Facebook: “Pray for EYN HQ. We are displaced, trapped in the bush,” he wrote earlier in the weekend. Another Facebook post showed pictures of EYN families taking refuge “in the bush”–a Nigerian term for empty forested or scrub land that typically surrounds towns and villages. A “good Samaritan” gave shelter to some headquarters families on one night this weekend, including EYN president Samuel Dali and his wife Rebecca. She had attended the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference in July to represent EYN.
“As the situation is still so volatile and fluid, the plan requires considerable flexibility, monitoring, and adjustments as the situation changes,” said the grant request. The grant helps EYN begin a pilot project focused on temporary care centers for displaced EYN families in central Nigeria. The initial goal is to build a care center for 10 families, purchasing or renting land in the EYN name, building temporary homes and toilets, providing adequate water supply including pumps and well drilling if needed, funding transportation of people to the care center, providing mattresses with mosquito nets, three months of food supplies, and tools for agriculture.
“We have to be disciplined and allow their church leadership to make the decisions,” warned Noffsinger, as he commented on the role of the US church in this partnership with EYN. “This is really hard,” he added. Noffsinger said his own instinct is to offer help to EYN leadership to leave the country, but that is a North American response. “I sense from Samuel [Dali, EYN president] that he doesn’t want to leave his people. If it was me and America, I’d want to stay with my church.”
Noffsinger asks Brethren in the US, where he knows many people are “chomping at the bit to do something,” to respect the Nigerian church’s “ability to make excellent decisions without unjustly interfering.” His office, Global Mission and Service, and Brethren Disaster Ministries are making Nigeria a top priority, he said. His own focus this fall is to support EYN, and he is having to cancel two other ecumenical engagements, with regret, in order to do so.
This is a time when “external global influences that you can’t control are changing our agenda,” Noffsinger said.
Brethren communities affected as insurgents take more territory
The Boko Haram extremist Islamist insurgent group fighting for a “pure Islamic state” has made more advances and taken more territory, just in the past few days according to news reports from Nigeria. In recent days, Boko Haram has taken Madagali, Gulak, Michika, and Uba, and attacked Biu.
Madagali, Gulak, Michika, and Uba had strong EYN church communities and some were locations of former Church of the Brethren Mission stations.
Nigerian and international news media report that the Nigerian army is attempting to halt the Boko Haram advance toward the key cities of Maiduguri–which is north of the Boko Haram controlled area, and Mubi–which is on the southeast of Boko Haram territory, and that fierce fighting has gone on between the Nigeria army and air force and the insurgents. Also, Boko Haram has begun attacking towns across the border in Cameroon.
The violence is affecting Muslims and Christians alike, reported Markus Gamache, EYN staff liaison who is a key organizer of the EYN refugee resettlement in central Nigeria. “Muslim brothers, friends, and Christians scattered in bush and hills reaching out to families in different cities for more prayers,” he wrote in an e-mail about the Boko Haram invasion of Gulak on Friday night, Sept. 5. His note contradicts media reports about army efforts to stay the advance, saying there was no effort to safeguard Gulak.
“Madagali, Gulak, and Michika are [some] of the most EYN traditional towns,” Gamache wrote. “Lord have mercy.”
In an earlier report on the refugee situation, and personal reflections on the crisis in Nigeria, Gamache noted that refugees were already pouring in before the latest Boko Haram advance. “More Muslims and Christians coming in,” he wrote in late August. “Three married men arrived on 31st August 2014 making 14 men and three women now in my house. More are on their way just trying to find a route to get out from the town that is under the control of Boko Haram.”
He added news from his home village, among others now under insurgent control: “On the 26th of August, 2014, there was forceful acceptance of Islam religion to people in my village. About 50 people at gunpoint accepted Islam as their faith while three young girls were kidnapped by BH. Very sad news coming from the villages about old people that were left behind because of their inability to run are dying in their rooms with no men or strong women to bury them. Old women also are dying alone with no help for food and water.”
His report included heartwrenching stories of families having to leave weakened or sick members or children behind, as they fled.
He also lamented what he characterized as the “typical” response of most Christians in Nigeria, writing that the general church community “in some ways…is preaching hate, rage, and division among the denominations and also portraying…Islam as a religion of killing and destruction. The Muslims are not spared too and they are also facing the same issue,” he noted. “When Jesus said love your enemies he probably meant you should not kill them. But lots of church leaders [are] preaching killing. If the devil is using both Christians and Muslims to kill each other, individuals should try their best not to join any form of wickedness.”
He lamented as well the way that Islam has been given precedence by the governments in many Nigerian states, to the detriment of justice and safety for Christians.
His thoughtful e-mail, written during a time of crisis, raised the big questions about what is going on. “How did the war start?” he wrote, in part. “Whatever we are doing now is the second place. We are trying to gather history, facts, and find a way to help the victims. What began in the north east as a sectarian crisis has now grown into full fledged terrorism. It started like a joke from religious street preaching [by a] political thug. The way poverty, corruption, and unemployment is being handled by the government actually gave more breeding space to most of our problems today.”
Darfur relief effort also receives EDF grant
Brethren Disaster Ministries also is directing an EDF grant of $30,000 to the Darfur area of Sudan, following an appeal from ACT Alliance for a 2014 Darfur Program. “Government directed violence and local tribal conflicts continue to create an insecure environment, threatening the lives and livelihoods of the population,” said the grant request. “Tribal clashes throughout the region in 2013 resulted in 300,000 new internally displaced persons, leading to overcrowding, and thus overtaxing of existing services and facilities.” The grant will help aid 586,000 including conflict-affected groups in camps, host communities, returnee villages, and agro-nomadic groups.
For more information, and how to help
For more about the Church of the Brethren mission in Nigeria and information about Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria go to www.brethren.org/nigeria
To help support the work of Brethren Disaster Ministries and the Emergency Disaster Fund grants for the relief effort, go to www.brethren.org/edf