Over 1,000 Christians have been killed this year in Nigeria as attacks led by Fulani extremists continue to plague rural farming communities in the Middle Belt, according to an estimation published by the U.K.-based nongovernmental organization Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust.
HART, a nonprofit founded by U.K. member of Parliament Baroness Caroline Cox to "support people suffering from conflict and persecution," released a report last month sharing details and testimonies from a recent fact-finding mission to Nigeria.
The Nov. 18 report is titled "Your Land or Your Body: The escalating persecution and displacement of Christians in northern and central Nigeria." A copy of the report was obtained by The Christian Post.
"Islamist Fulani militia continue to engage in an aggressive and strategic land grabbing policy in Plateau, Benue, Taraba, Southern Kaduna and parts of Bauchi state," the report reads. "They attack rural villages, force villagers off their lands and settle in their place â€” a strategy that is epitomized by the phrase: 'your land or your blood.'"
Fulanis are a predominantly Muslim nomadic people group of about 20 million across West and Central Africa. They have long come under tension with farming communities as the scarcity for land gets greater and the human populations get larger.
While farmer-herder clashes are nothing new, the violence carried out against farming communities has increased in severity as thousands have been killed in the last several years.
While the report states that the exact death toll for 2019 is unknown, "Preliminary data suggests that over 1,000 Christians have been killed since January." HART estimates that there have been more than 6,000 Christians killed since 2015 and as many as 12,000 displaced from their villages.
"I have visited many of the affected areas and seen the tragedies of death and destruction,'" Cox said in a statement. "In every village, the message from local people is the same: 'Please, please help us! The Fulani are coming. We are not safe in our own homes.'"
There was a rise in Fulani extremist attacks in the Kaduna state in 2019 after Christians were accused of a reprisal attack on a Fulani settlement that killed as many as 131 in February.
According to the report, there were "five major attacks" in Kaduna between January and November, which resulted in a combined total of 500 deaths.
A HART spokesperson clarified to CP that the 1,000 death estimation counts "predominantly people killed in Plateau, Southern Kaduna and Taraba states by Fulani Herdsmen" but also includes killings by Boko Haram in Borno state.
The figure is partly based on Kaduna state government reports in February and March as well as media reports and reports from community leaders in Plateau state. The figure also includes Boko Haram terrorist killings of security officers and soldiers who were believed to be Christians.
The finding comes as a Nigeria-based civil society organization reported that at least 2,400 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2018.
In July, the international human rights nongovernmental organization Jubilee Campaign sent a report to the International Criminal Court warning that the "standard of genocide has now been reached" in Nigeria. The Jubilee Campaign report highlighted 52 attacks on farming communities.
Some have downplayed the role religion has played in the increase of violence in the Middle Belt, as some say that the violence is part of the decadeslong "herder-farmer" clashes that have escalated since farmers have settled on traditional grazing routes used by the herding communities.
Although the underlying drivers of the violence in the Middle Belt are complex, the HART report stresses that violence against predominantly Christian communities "suggests that religion and ideology play a key part."
According to HART, Christian pastors and community heads are often targeted in attacks, while hundreds of churches have been destroyed.
"The attacks have, on occasion, led to retaliatory violence, as communities conclude that they can no longer rely on the government for protection or justice," the HART report reads. "However, we have seen no evidence of comparability of scale or equivalence of atrocities."
The HART report also presents testimonies from survivors.
"Our home is destroyed. The hospital was burnt. They tried to burn the roof of the church by piling up the chairs, like a bonfire," 38-year-old Antonia Aje from Karamai told HART. "Life is frightening. We sometimes receive messages of a renewed attack. So we run to hide. We have no means of defense. We don't have weapons to defend ourselves. There is no kind of security or vigilante support."
Cox contends that the villagers' cry for help has continually been "ignored."
"Something has to change â€” urgently," she stressed. "For the longer, we tolerate these massacres, the more we embolden the perpetrators. We give them a 'green light' to carry on killing."
Nigeria ranks as the 12th-worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2019 World Watch List.