Nigeria: Sokoto State Stifles Growth of Church Buildings

Sokoto, Nigeria – The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), one of the largest Pentecostal churches in Nigeria, is also one of the fastest growing churches in Africa. It is a cradle of miraculous healing, signs and wonders, but there is one miracle the church in this northern city has been unable to muster: keeping a Shiite sect from taking over its property.

An Islamic sect called Izala has built a mosque near the denomination’s Kokeri parish and taken the church to court to force it relocate and take over its property, Pastor Abisona Michael told Compass.

“We have been forcefully dragged to court out of our will, because we do not believe that a church should go to court,” Michael said. “We are waiting for the court to give its judgment on the matter, since all efforts we made for an amicable settlement with these Muslims have failed.”

The Islamic sect has not even presented a legal pretext for taking over the property in Sokoto, capital of one of Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim northern states, Michael said. Muslims dominate the legal, government, and public service systems in the north, which Islamists use to harass and frustrate Christians, he said.

The Izala launched the legal offensive simply because they believe that the court, being filled with Muslim judges, will seize the property from the church and give it to them, Michael said. “Such cases are very common in northern Nigeria, and the church is helpless about it,” he said.

Area Izala leaders declined to speak with Compass on the issue, citing the pending court case. All efforts to encourage them to comment failed.

“The problem is still there, and it has not been resolved,” Michael said. “The existence of this church is at the mercy of God.”

Such disputes are not restricted to Kokeri parish – the denomination is also facing legal and bureaucratic tangles at parishes in the Binji and Silame areas of Sokoto.

“At Binji, we are facing serious opposition,” Michael said. “We planted a church there, and when we needed to build a sanctuary, the local government administration there banned the community from selling land to us to build the church.”

Even in situations where Christians are able to acquire lands and donate them to the denomination for building sanctuaries, Michael says, “approval of the building plan of the sanctuary is never granted.”

In Silame town, the RCCG planted a church but the local government administration there also refused to allow building of a sanctuary, he said.

“In addition, the Muslims there have intensified their opposition against our members, and many of them have been forced to relocate out of the area,” he said. “The few members remaining there now are not finding it easy.”

Michael said the legal action against his church “has brought a lot of contention, a lot of strife, physically and of course spiritually too, to us.”

The problem is prevalent in all local government areas in towns and villages of the state, he said. The Pentecostal pastor believes that his church’s ordeal is part of a plan and design by Sokoto state Muslims to persecute Christians.

“There is religious discrimination here which has resulted from stiff opposition to Christianity,” he said. “For instance, the government here does not allow sale of landed property to Christian churches, and even if a church acquires land, it is always difficult for it to develop it because the laws regulating property development are very stringent for churches.”

The pastor remains hopeful, though, that “the gates of hell can never overcome the church of Jesus Christ. Through practical love, which is an essential part of our ministry, we shall overcome these difficult times. That is why we need the support of other Christian brethren too.”

The Rev. Reuben Yaro, chairman of the Sokoto district of the Evangelical Church of West Africa, agreed that it is problem common to many churches in the state. Getting land and permission to build has been painful for the ECWA’s churches, he said.

“We’ve had problems getting lands in Kadiji, Farfaru, Akila, Gwadabawa, Mabera, and Old Airport areas to build sanctuaries for our local congregations,” he said. “At Kadiji, our church members built a sanctuary on a property donated by a member, but in 2005 the Muslims there went and destroyed the building and pews, thereby, forcing us to vacate the land.”

The government has prohibited the Kadiji congregation to rebuild the church, he said.

Likewise, he said, the ECFA bought a property at Farfaru, in Wamako local government area, but the Muslim-controlled local administration stopped construction of a church building after work had begun.

“The same problems confronted us at Akila police barracks, in Gwadabawa, Mabera, and in the Old Airport areas,” he said.

Pastor Tayo Atiniku, state secretary of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), further confirmed complaints of the government denying Christians’ land and build permits.

“Building of new churches here is a major problem facing Christians almost on a weekly basis,” Atiniku says. “Acquiring land in this state for the building of churches is very difficult. And once an application for land contains the name of a Christian, it is rejected by government and its agencies.”

If Christians try to ignore legal and bureaucratic roadblocks, Muslim opponents resort to force. After the PFN began building a ministry center called the Goshen Project last November, Atiniku said, “Muslims went to the place and destroyed the buildings there, and the blocks we had there were vandalized and stolen by them.”

His ministry had applied for approval to build the center 10 years prior, without success.

Islamic officials do not seem to discriminate among denominations. The experience of Kevin Aje, Roman Catholic bishop of Sokoto diocese, sums up a plight common to leaders across the ecclesiastical spectrum.

“I have, through difficulty, been able to acquire two landed properties for our church,” said Bishop Aje, also chairman of the Sokoto state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria. “But up to this moment that I am talking to you, it has not been possible for us to get approval to build the churches.”