Sir Edward Leigh is Member of Parliament for Gainsborough.
It was gunmen – not climate – that killed dozens of innocent men, women, and children in a horrible attack on a packed church in Nigeria last year. But that didn’t stop Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, from singling out climate change in his comments on the gruesome incident.
COP27. Net zero. Imminent planetary apocalypse. All these and more are on policymakers’ radars. Yet, for all their importance, policymakers need to admit that there are some things that cannot be explained by climate change. Again and again, those in government fail to recognise the often dominant role that ideology plays in attacks both in Nigeria as well as elsewhere in Africa.
Years on from the start of devastating attacks on Christian communities across Nigeria, we are no closer to preventing further killings. We are making little progress, if any. One of the clearest reasons for this is the way in which those in authority refuse or neglect to acknowledge the primary reason for many of the attacks, namely the focused, pre-meditated persecution of Christian groups by Islamist militants, including Boko Haram and Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).
Each death, each church bombing, and each abduction is not merely another statistic, but a human life with invaluable dignity and meaning, touching the lives of many others. Yet each death, bombing, and abduction is an indictment on the West.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has noted that “violent Islamist groups based in northern Nigeria remain some of the deadliest and most formidable jihadist groups operating in the world today. Estimates suggest that conflict with groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province has resulted in the deaths of more than 37,500 people since 2011, and there is a reasonable basis to believe that these groups have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
This claim was acknowledged in a 2020 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. New data from Aid to the Church in Need shows that the oppression or persecution of Christians increased in 75 per cent of countries surveyed between 2020-22.
Regarding the common argument made for the importance of climate change in making sense of the attacks, to which almost 8000 Nigerian Christians have fallen victim in eighteen months alone, the USCIRF’s analysis is pertinent. The US body warned that “Boko Haram, ISWAP and Ansaru have all demonstrated the capacity and intent to conduct attacks on individuals based on religion. Boko Haram and ISWAP have also imposed their interpretation of Islam onto others in their areas of control”.
Despite military pressure on jihadist groups operating in the Sahel, “militant Islamist groups in Nigeria demonstrate remarkable staying power and threaten to co-opt and “Islamize” other violent conflicts in Nigeria and throughout the region”. This is the situation facing the persecuted Christians of northern Nigeria.
Although not all violence stems from Islamist hatred of their neighbours, such violence is very much ‘co-opted’ to form part of the emerging caliphate’s overarching eschatological framework. Common theft, land grabs, and violent rivalries motivated in part by desertification, harsh climates, and financial poverty can be re-branded by predominant groups as a religious war against Christians, often providing a much-needed religious justification for deplorable actions.
Refusing to note this and take appropriate action is a betrayal of suffering Christians, who may not be the target of all violence in the region – nor solely on account of their faith – but who nevertheless remain in a cauldron of violence that can be conveniently stirred up, justified, and inflicted on them as the need allows.
Thus, even if the argument for climate change explaining the frequent murders and attacks is granted, the Islamist religious context in which it takes place cannot be denied. Ephemeral as smoke yet deadly as fire, it is the normalisation of Islamist violence engulfing swathes of Africa – and widespread Western indifference to it – that poses as much a threat to the lives of innocent civilians as any perceived factor. Emphasis on climate change is unwarranted given the repeated fatal attacks on Christian churches and congregations year after year, specifically on the holiest days of their calendar.
Regardless of how the climate is changing, and to what extent, our attitude toward defending the most vulnerable Christians in the most hostile environments in the world cannot. As much as some would like, not all crises can be explained by climate change.