Amaka Nwoke was standing in front of St. Bernadine's Catholic Church in Oyo, southwest Nigeria, holding a sign that read, "Stop the murders in Nigeria."
Nwoke, 24, had joined hundreds of Christians in the area to protest the increasing killings and kidnappings in Nigerian Christian communities.
"Every day when I turn on the television or the social media I see murders and violence against Christians," Nwoke told me over the phone. "I'm scared," she said. "These killings and kidnappings are so many and have been increasingly attacked in communities that you thought were safe and impossible to penetrate."
According to the Institute for Security Studies, uncertainty remains one of Nigeria's greatest challenges. Across Nigeria, millions of Christians live in fear of mounting attacks from armed men or herders of the Fulani ethnic group.
Abductions and killings by ranchers are frequent and accidental in Nigeria, and Christian ethnic groups are the main victims. The shepherds are Muslims who regularly travel with their cattle to pastures in the south – an area largely dominated by Christians.
Cattle grazing often destroys crops and creates friction between shepherds and local farmers. And since the shepherds are Muslim, the religious tension between them and the Christians is revived.
Under President Donald Trump, who relies on political support from white evangelicals, the United States has shown renewed interest in religious freedom issues around the world, with a particular focus on persecuted Christians.
On June 2, Trump issued an executive order to promote international religious freedom. The ordinance directs the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to take action to combat religious freedom violations and calls for a budget of at least $ 50 million for programs to combat religious violence and persecution abroad and protect it religious minorities.
"This new order shows an ongoing commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom abroad by stopping crimes against those of the faith – and at a critical time in Nigeria," said the International Committee on Nigeria, a nonprofit organization that works to promote freedom of religion and human dignity in Nigeria, said in a statement.
But US efforts so far have borne little fruit. Despite the country's lockdowns linked to the coronavirus, several reports of increased killings have been received this year. More than 1,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2019, according to a report by the UK-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust last December. The organization further reported that by that point, 6,000 Nigerians had been killed and 12,000 displaced since 2015.
Attacks on Christian communities have increased under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari, who also hailed from the Fulani tribe and took office in 2015, has been accused by Christian leaders and human rights activists of doing little to protect the vulnerable groups that have faced attacks over the years. Killings are often not investigated and victims do not trust the government's sincerity or their ability to bring perpetrators to justice.
The International Crisis Group, an independent nonprofit, says conflicts between farmers and shepherds in the country took an even bigger toll than the more famous Boko Haram uprising in the northeast. An estimated 2,500 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced in 2016.
Relations between farming communities and shepherds have become increasingly violent. More than 8,000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced since 2011, the group said in a May report.
Christian religious communities are also specifically addressed. On January 8, four Catholic seminarians were abducted from the institute where they were studying by armed men in northern Nigeria. Three of them were later released, but 18-year-old Michael Nnadi was killed for expressing confidence in the detention, according to a denominational statement by one of the suspects. His murder caused outrage in the country.
Even priests are not spared. Last year eight priests were kidnapped in different parts of the country. More than five priests have been killed by armed men in the past two years. In August 2019, more than 1,000 priests protested the murder of their colleagues and called on the government to protect them.
In January, the Boko Haram terrorist group, which signed up to Islamic State in 2015, beheaded a leader of the Nigerian Christian Association after refusing the ransom paid for his release. As early as December 2019, the same group had executed 11 Christians in a published video. The group said it was in retaliation for the United States government's assassination of their leader.
During Ash Wednesday, many Catholics wore black to protest the ongoing insecurity that has led to the kidnapping, violence and murder of Christians in the country.
“The insecurity in Nigeria today is so great that most Nigerians in all parts of the country live in fear at home or on the go. The repeated barbaric executions of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnappings for reasons related to the same group and other terrorists have traumatized many citizens, "the Nigerian Bishops' Conference said in a statement.
Prior to Executive Ordinance, the US Commission's 2020 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which documents the state of religious freedom around the world, listed Nigeria as a "Land of Special Importance" – a designation that is the most serious category for documenting violations of the law Freedom of religion is viewed and violation.
Last year the US State Department added Nigeria to its special watchlist for governments that have committed or tolerated serious violations of religious freedom.
"Our prayers go out to the families of the victims of the recent attacks across Nigeria," tweeted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a string of murders in June. "We condemn this senseless violence and call on the Nigerian government to redouble its efforts to protect the civilian population."
Nwoke said the government must take responsibility for the murders.
"I fear for the safety of my family and friends," she said. "We want the authorities to know that people are being killed and that nothing has been done about it."