NINGI, Nigeria - Islamists under the auspices of a paramilitary force last week destroyed six churches to protest a police rescue of two teenage Christian girls kidnapped by Muslims in this Bauchi state town.
Police recovered the two Christian girls, Mary Chikwodi Okoye, 15, and Uche Edward, 14, on May 12 after Muslims in Ningi kidnapped them three weeks ago in an attempt to expand Islam by marrying them to Muslim men. Police took the two girls, who had been under foster care, to safety in southeastern Nigeria where their biological parents live.
The kidnappers had taken the girls to Wudil town in Kano state. Following the rescue of the girls, Muslims under the auspices of the Hisbah Command, a paramilitary arm of Kano state's Sharia Commission, responsible for enforcing Islamic law, went on a rampage on Tuesday , attacking Christians and setting fire to the churches.
The destroyed churches were the Deeper Life Bible Church, St. Mary's Catholic Church, All Souls Anglican Church, Church of Christ in Nigeria, Redeemed Christian Church of God, and the Redeemed Peoples Mission.
Joseph Abdu, pastor of Deeper Life Bible Church, told Compass that damages to his church property in the Muslim rampage of May 13 amounted to about 13 million naira - and that his congregation had shrunk to 40 people from the 130 who attended before the attack.
Abdu said the Christian foster parents of the two rescued girls, Kanayo Chukwu Osakwe and Robinson Ajolokwu Ozuagbunna, noticed the teenagers were missing three weeks ago and reported it to police and to Ningi's Emirate Council.
"The Christian community in Ningi, having reported the matter to the police, organized a search team to search for the missing girls," Abdu said. "Word eventually got to the search team that the girls were being held in the town of Wudil in Kano state by a Muslim leader in that town."
The search team of Christians along with two policemen went to Wudil, only to be told that the Hisbah Command had returned the girls to Ningi to the Muslim leader of the town, the Emir of Ningi, Alhaji Muhammadu Yunusa Danyaya.
"The team returned to Ningi and confirmed that the girls were in the palace of the Muslim leader, but that they would not be released to their parents until the Emir, who was out of town, returned," Abdu told Compass.
Kidnapping of teenage Christian girls by Muslims, the pastor said, has become a recurring practice in Ningi. Muslims have kidnapped at least 13 Christian girls in the town, Christian sources said.
"These girls are usually kidnapped, forcefully converted to Islam, and then married out to other Muslim men against the will of both the girls and their parents," Abdu said.
Two months ago Muslims in Ningi kidnapped another Christian teenage girl, Maryann Chinenye, converted her to Islam and then married her to a Muslim man, he said.
"As I talk to you now, the girl is yet to be found by her parents," Abdu added.
The pastor said a member of his church, Comfort Joseph, had her daughter kidnapped four years ago.
"The teenage daughter of Mrs. Joseph was converted to Islam and married to a Muslim man," he said. "Up to this moment I am speaking to you, we have not been able to rescue this girl from these Muslims."
Osakwe, foster father of the 15-year-old Okoye, told Compass that the teenage Christians were initially taken to the house of a Muslim leader in Wudil in Kano state, Alhaji Umaru Maibishi.
"But this Muslim man, on learning that we were on our way to his house, sent the two girls back to the Emir of Ningi, Alhaji Muhammadu Yunusa Danyaya," Osakwe said.
When he and members of the search team eventually met with the Emir, Osakwe said, he told them that the girls had converted to Islam.
"We rejected this explanation and insisted that our daughters be returned to us, but the Muslim leaders refused to do so," Osakwe told Compass. "The police, on sensing that there was tension in the town over the matter, evacuated the girls to Bauchi town, where they were eventually rescued and taken to eastern Nigeria to be reunited with their biological parents."
Osakwe identified a Muslim leader in Ningi town, Alhaji Bala Gambo, as the mastermind behind area kidnappings of teenage Christian girls. Gambo is one of the members of the Ningi Emir's council of advisors.
The attack on Christians last Tuesday , Osakwe said, left him financially devastated as Ningi Muslims looted or destroyed goods worth over 50 million naira in his shops.
Muslim leaders - Emir Danyaya and Gambo in Ningi, and the Muslim leader at Wudil in Kano, Maibishi - declined to speak to Compass about the kidnappings and attacks.
Robinson Ajolokwu Ozuegbunna, foster father of the rescued 14-year-old Edward and a member of the All Souls Anglican Church, confirmed Osakwe's account of the kidnappings and the attack on Christians in Ningi town.
A resident of Ningi for 22 years, he told Compass that he had "lost everything" in the attack.
Osakwe and Ozuegbunna felt fortunate that their foster daughters were rescued in spite of losing their properties in the rampage, but Stephen Nweke and Comfort Joseph continued to wait anxiously. Bummi Joseph, 16, was kidnapped in 2004.
Her mother told Compass that police have not been able to rescue her from the Muslims who abducted her.
"I learned that she was forcefully married to a Muslim man and that she has given birth to two children," Joseph said.
She said Gambo was responsible for the kidnapping of her daughter.
"Alhaji Gambo boasted before us when we went to the Emir's palace that he did it, and that we cannot do anything to him," she told Compass. "The man has protection from the sharia courts."
Nweke, a member of the St. Mary's Catholic Church in Ningi, said his foster daughter, Maryann Chinenye Chiazo, 16, was kidnapped in November 2007 and has remained in Muslim captivity.
"I reported her abduction to the police and the Emirate Council here in Ningi, but eventually the Sharia Commission here in Bauchi State said she was now a Muslim and is under their custody," Nweke told Compass.
Nweke also accused Gambo of being behind the kidnapping of the Christian girls. Though he is in danger from Muslim agitators, he vowed that he would not leave Ningi until his foster daughter is rescued and released to him.
"I can't leave this town without my daughter, even if they would kill me - I prefer to be killed than leave without her," he said with tears. He pleaded that the Nigerian government "help me get my daughter back."