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Nigerian Baptists mark 150 years amid Muslim-Christian tensions

ABEOKUTA, Nigeria (BP)–With the new president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, a declared Baptist, and the overall Baptist community numbering more than 3.5 million, the Nigerian Baptist Convention had much cause for rejoicing during its 150th anniversary celebration April 16-20.

Even heavy rains couldn’t dampen spirits as thousands of Nigerians descended on M.K.O. Abiola Stadium in Abeokuta, where Baptist work started. The convention now encompasses 7,000-plus churches with 880,000 baptized members.

Among those attending the celebration were Denton Lotz, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, and Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, which started work in Nigeria on Aug. 5, 1850, with the arrival of the first missionary, Thomas Jefferson Bowen.

“It was a great moment when Jerry Rankin gave greetings,” Lotz said, “since the NBC is the result of the outstanding pioneer mission work of the SBC.”

Lotz had an opportunity to greet Nigerian President Obasanjo on behalf of Baptists worldwide. Obasanjo himself, however, by far was the convention’s star attraction. He was greeted enthusiastically when he came and led the crowd in singing, “To God Be the Glory.”

“This is one of the most fulfilling hours of my life,” Obasanjo said. “I stand here as a man who must say ‘To God be the glory’ for this great period of Baptist history. May God grant to us more fruitful years of service.”

The president singled out the International Mission Board and thanked Southern Baptists for planting the seeds of the gospel and working diligently to nurture and grow Nigerian Christians.

“Their work has influenced millions of Nigerians and other African countries. I speak as one of those touched by their work,” said Obasanjo, who attended a Baptist boys’ high school, where he was first introduced to the love of Jesus Christ.

Jailed for his opposition to the military government in Nigeria, Obasanjo became a much more committed believer to Jesus Christ during his imprisonment. There he wrote a book on “Guides to Effective Prayer.” In the introduction he writes, “… the greatest weapon of humankind today is prayer … to bring about change in the human situation and the world situation at every level.”

In light of recent Muslim-Christian unrest in Nigeria, Obasanjo stressed the need for reconciliation between the two groups and he called on Christians and Muslims to fast and pray for two days for peace. Obasanjo also underscored the need to fight all forms of sectarianism which divide Nigerians.

He implored Baptists to be involved in education. This follows the expressed wish of many government and Christian leaders that all of the former religious schools be returned to the denominations because the quality of education from those schools has not yet been matched by the national government.

Lotz, addressing Nigerian Baptists, tapped the theme “Jesus Christ Forever. Yes!” He called on Baptists to say yes to Jesus Christ, to human rights, to freedom of religion, to separation of church and state and to the priesthood of all believers.

Attending the meeting with the BWA general secretary was his wife, Janice Robinson Lotz, who was one of the first Southern Baptist journeymen to teach at the Idi Aba Baptist Women’s Teacher Training College in Abeokuta in 1965.

Perennial leaders in evangelism, Nigerian Baptists in 1999 started 851 churches and baptized 30,150 people. The convention also has sent out 36 missionaries to serve in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea.

Nigeria was the springboard for Baptist work in Africa. Nigerian Christian traders shared their faith as they traveled in and out of Benin, Ghana and Togo. Small pockets of believers developed along the trade routes and began asking for missionaries and pastors. In the 1950s, Baptist missionaries were sent to Ghana. A few years later, six Nigerian missionaries moved to the other side of the continent to start Baptist work in East Africa. Today Southern Baptist missionaries, their African Baptist co-workers and other Great Commission Christians are making plans to take the gospel to every people group on the continent.

Rankin told the gathering, “I believe the reason Nigerian Baptists have been blessed is that they are taking the gospel to the world.”

More than taking pride in 150 years of Baptist work in Nigeria, Rankin said, The real reason we have gathered is not to celebrate the past, but to look to the future. Because of the power of God, you will continue to bear fruit.”

As part of the celebration, Rankin honored IMB missionary Alma Rohm during the celebration for her 50 years of missionary service in Nigeria. As she accepted her pin, every person in the stadium stood in her honor. Rohm has taught most of the pastors and church leaders serving today. During her tenure, she has done everything from teaching at a girls school to planting churches. Her main duties, however, have been at the Baptist College in Iwo.

When Rohm was appointed 50 years ago, there were only 600 missionaries serving in 50 countries, Rankin said. Now, there are almost 5,000 missionaries serving in 154 countries.

The Nigerian convention is led by Emmanuel O. Bolarinwa as president and Samuel Fadeji, general secretary, who also serves as president of the BWA-related All Africa Baptist Fellowship.

During his visit in Nigeria Lotz had an opportunity to talk with B. Uche Enyioha, president of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Kaduna which was destroyed in the Muslim riots last in February. During the riots five students were killed, and 16 Baptist churches were destroyed among 100 Baptist churches in the area.

Enyioha said the death of only five was “a miracle” because there were 600 students and family members on the seminary campus when it was attacked.

Enyioha reported he was in a meeting Feb. 21 when an agitated student ran into his office to warn him that someone was coming and he soon learned that Muslim militants were gathering at the gate.

He said there were about 300 to 400 demonstrators outside the seminary gate with guns, clubs and machetes. That day the students defended the gate with whatever they could find and the demonstrators departed. Thousands of them returned on Feb. 22 and threw petrol firebombs in several buildings and began to tear down the walls with axes.

Students and professors ran to the western wall of the seminary and began to climb over a ladder not knowing what would happen to them. Much to their surprise, on the other side there were blocks that provided a stairwell down from the wall.

“This was a real miracle for us,” Enyioha said. When the ladder they used to climb over the wall from the inside broke, students on the other side of the wall began to pull the others over and all of the students were able to make it over the wall and to the nearby air force base for safety. Finally at 12 noon the military was given orders to protect the buildings.

The hatred and bitterness dates back to 1987, Enyioha said, and the seminary had been attacked before in 1992. The seminary is in a predominantly Muslim stronghold, the Kawo area, but the latest cause for the loss of life and destruction was the imposition last October of the Sharia law by the state of Zanfara passed. Each of the Muslim states subsequently passed Sharia law, including Kaduna.

The Christian leadership protested and a rally of Christians in the morning of the Feb. 21 was what Enyioha said ignited the Muslim attack. All of the Christians of the city of Kaduna had a prayer rally in the morning to oppose the enforcing of the Muslim law, and apparently the great masses who attended the prayer rally frightened the Muslims. Enyioha said they were probably astounded there were so many Christians in the city.

Fadeji led a delegation of Baptist leaders to Kaduna on Sunday March 12. Just one year ago the seminary celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was a happy reunion to find that the president had survived and other faculty members had taken refuge with their wives and children at the air force base.

The Nigerian Baptist Convention has called on the government to investigate the roles of two former heads of state believed to be involved in much of the Muslim unrest in Kaduna. Convention President Bolarinwa, at a press briefing, said the government “should not only condemn the utterance of the former heads of state but should also investigate their roles in the Kaduna mayhem.”

As the Nigerian leaders toured the seminary, they saw several dangerous instruments which were left behind by the rioters including objects such as knives with bloodstains. They also saw empty shells from gunshots that were fired.

Already Baptists in Nigeria have collected funds to help their brothers and sisters in Kaduna and especially to help in the seminary relief. The Nigerian Woman’s Mission Union has also sent funds to help rebuild the seminary.

Because there is a sense that this may not be the last attack to which the seminary might be subjected, discussions are under way as to its future location. The northern part of Nigeria is not predominantly Muslim and it is important for people around the world to know this, Fadeji said.

Additional (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo title: 50 YEARS.

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