She didn't have to die this way.
Let me paint the picture for you. Saturday, July 9, began like any other day for Deaconess Eunice Elisha, wife of Pastor Olawale Elisha of the Divine Touch Parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Old NEPA Road, Kubwa, a satellite town in Abuja, capital city of Nigeria.
She was going about her early morning preaching regiment between the hours of five and six when she was murdered in cold blood by suspected Muslim youths. She was reportedly beheaded and stabbed in the stomach and leg by her killers. According to SaharaReporters, “she was left in the pool of her blood and carefully put her severed head on the Bible, with megaphone and cell phone beside her dead body.” But the police commissioner for the area said her body was intact.
“She goes out every morning for “morning cry” (Evangelism),” says her husband, Pastor Elisha, “which means when she wakes in the morning, she takes her megaphone and preaches around the neighborhood... When we got to the police station, my wife was at the back of the pick up. They removed her head and two legs...”
Barely a week after the gruesome murder of Eunice, Friday, July 15, Muslim youths went on rampage again. Worshipers at Saint Philip Catholic Church in Barki Ikun along Kaduna Road in Suleja, near Abuja were attacked. One of the victims tells SaharaReporters “We were praying inside the church when some Muslim youths with dangerous weapons besieged us from nowhere, beating everyone in sight, including security guards attached to the church.” “Another eyewitness who gave his name as Emmanuel told SaharaReporters the attackers destroyed property both inside and outside the church The Muslim attackers kept shouting that is only Muslims that have the right to pray on Friday that was the reason they gave for attacking us.”
A report released in Abuja by Open Doors and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), looks at persecution from three main sources: Boko Haram, Muslim Fulani herdsmen, and the Muslim religious and political elite that dominates government in Northern Nigeria. The report says “In 2015 there were 4,028 killings and 198 church attacks that Open Doors was able to record. The figures recorded for the previous year were 2,484 killings and 108 church attacks. For decades, Christians in the region have suffered marginalization and discrimination as well as targeted violence. It is estimated that 30 million Christians are the largest minority in a mainly Muslim region,” concludes the report.
Open Doors is a non-governmental organization that works in Northern Nigeria, funding development projects such as clinics, community health training, provision of boreholes, schools and teacher training, vocational training for farmers and micro loans for orphans and widows. It also provides trauma treatment and emergency relief for victims of violence. Nigeria is the 12th on the Open Doors Watch List which ranks countries according to how difficult it is to be a Christian. According to the organization, the 2016 Watch List shows a staggering 62% increase in violent killings of Christians in Northern Nigeria.
The murder of Eunice and the mugging of Catholic Church parishioners are the latest in a string of lethal attacks by religious bigots. It underscores the growing and gnawing persecution and killing of Christians by Muslim fanatics in Nigeria. The killings are emblematic of the widespread indiscriminate carnage of innocent Nigerians. The murder of Eunice provides a sobering portrait of the open season of killing in our nation. It has all the trappings when religion becomes evil. It exposes the failure of the government to guarantee safety and security of our citizens. It highlights the dereliction and abdication of the salient and sacred duty of the inmates in the National Asylum. It also shows the cheap price tag attached to Nigerians' life – a price cheaper than Ragolis bottled water.
The catechism of religious terrorists is based on the belief that God anointed them to establish and fight for the will of God on earth. Faith turns toxic when adherents of such faith justify murder of the innocent for a higher good. Religion turns deadly when people's actions are motivated by a claim that they have the absolute truth that others don't have. This claim becomes a justification for violence against someone who disagrees with the claim. Extreme religious fanatics believe they know God's truth and they cannot be wrong. Self-appointed loonies who believe they are the sole interpreters of truth about religion are driven by hate, intolerance, prejudice, and blind obedience. Religion becomes dangerous and evil when the intellectual freedom of its followers are restricted, restrained or contained.
Religion is supposed to be a force for good. But what we're witnessing today is the exact opposite. From suicide bombers to venal church figures, they justify their extremism or fanaticism in the name of God. One man's cherished belief is another man's delusion. As I write these words, the shock of the murder of Eunice grips me with fear, sadness and sorrow. How could the killer or killers in the name of a religion justify that terror? Widespread poverty and inadequate structure mixed with strict, theocratic oligarchies with lots of social power is a perfect recipe for religious extremism. How could a young, innocent woman who was just exercising her freedom of speech and freedom of religion be butchered by religious hoodlums? “She is innocent, she didn't do anybody any harm,” cries her 15-year old daughter, Jessica. “She uses just her megaphone and the Bible, just preaching . They just killed her like a chicken and left her there,” mourns Jessica.
Freedom of religion and belief is a basic human right. It features in the “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1948) as article 18. Diversity of beliefs, religion pluralism is good and healthy because it fosters debate, truth-seeking, and understanding. When this is suppressed, stifled, and suffocated, it creates conflict with modernity, human rights, moral goodness, democracy, and liberty.
The Nigerian government must own this problem. Most importantly, our Muslim communities must own it, too. We've all got important role to play. The silent majority must come out in droves and speak up. The Imams, the Alfas, the Islamic scholars – they all owe us the duty to reeducate, redirect, deprogram and reprogram, re-indoctrinate, and refocus, the Muslim youths whose belief is based on conspiratorial suspicions and warped interpretation of Islamic theology and scripture. They must inform and enlighten their followers to practice a liberal, tolerant, accommodating, and inclusive Islam and by example demonstrate how it can work in harmony with democracy, freedom, and equality by standing up and speaking out.
To fully grasp the tenor and tone of the loss of Eunice, think of the seven children left behind, now motherless. Think of the husband left behind, now a widower. Think of the Redeemed Christian Church of God left behind, now in confusion and in contention of questions yelling for answers.
Religious extremism is a conduit for misery. We cannot completely wipe out religious fanatics or terrorists. But in a democracy, we must not only tolerate, but welcome dissent and debate. We must challenge ourselves when we are drawn toward demonizing beliefs or lifestyles that feel foreign or repugnant, even when we do not agree with the followers of such faith, belief, or lifestyle.
We have not in Nigeria foster the institutional prerequisites of democracy – the give-and-take of political discourse, freedom of religion, rule of law, independent courts, and equal justice before the law. Hate crimes are rooted in the spirit of hatred and opposition to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of choice are unconstitutional and in direct violation of our Constitution. These freedoms form the foundation of our inalienable rights and pursuit of happiness. They must be protected, preserved, and guaranteed. The killer or killers of Eunice Elisha must be apprehended and brought to justice without delay.
May the soul of Eunice Elisha rest in peace.