In Jos, in the middle-belt of Nigeria. despite the proliferating Christmas decorations in homes and churches, peace on earth and goodwill between communities continues to be in short supply. Across northern Nigeria, the church is facing an existential threat from the violence and intimidation of Islam in its various forms.
In the school of Gloria Kwashi, wife of the Anglican Archbishop, Ben Kwashi, which serves 400 orphans, the lunchtime bowl of mixed rice and beans with added nutrients is, for many of these children, the only meal of the day. The education of these orphans is taken seriously by Gloria Kwashi and her dedicated staff of seven, not only as a Christian imperative but also as a vital route out of poverty.
Left: Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Ben Kwashi and his wife, Gloria Kwashi. Right: Gloria Kwashi's school serves 400 orphans in Jos.
At night, Archbishop Ben, a fatherly but diminutive spiritual colossus, leads the prayers in front of the youngsters. He holds the rudimentary archbishop's staff they had made for him from branches of a nearby tree in one hand, while blessing them with the other.
"Good night Daddy Kwashi, goodnight Mummy Kwashi," the children say in unison. The orphans have nothing, but surrounded by the warm and disciplined Christian love of the Kwashis, they have everything.
There is still inter-communal violence. It is generated by Fulani Muslim herdsmen who migrate from the sharia law states in the north onto land belonging to ethnic Berom Christian villagers on the Jos Plateau. Ostensibly the Fulani herdsmen are searching for grazing pasture for their cattle, but their motive seems also to include expansionism.
The farmland belonging to the Berom village of Sho, a short drive from the city of Jos, has been forcibly occupied by Fulani herdsmen. In the past two years, twenty-four villagers from Sho have been massacred, ten of them on July 7 of this year. As a consequence, the villagers live in terror, unable to enter or exit their village or cross their own adjoining farmland except under armed military escort. Their school and church have been destroyed.
The leader of the community and villagers in the village square explained they are isolated, grieving and desperate: living in poverty and without access to their farmland for food.
It was not clear why the authorities have not attempted to rectify the situation. Justice is in short supply in northern Nigeria.
An internally displaced persons (IDP) camp is run in dilapidated school buildings in Bukuru, south of Jos, by the under-funded but resourceful Stefanos Foundation and its energetic CEO, Mark Lipdo. The camp comprises primarily Christians from the Gwoza area, close to the Cameroon border.
For much of the last century, Gwoza was peopled by primitive and frequently warring tribes. Then, after the Second World War, the colonial authorities allowed British and other missionaries into the area. These were doctors, nurses and teachers as well as evangelists; they built health clinics, schools and in due course, churches. The first indigenous convert, Inshaya Hutuku, who still lives there, became a Christian in the early 1950s. Then the early trickle of converts grew into a steady stream.
By 2013, there were over 200 churches in the thriving Gwoza area. By the middle of 2014, a year later, there were almost none left.
Boko Haram ["Western Education is Forbidden"] is the group that last year killed more people than ISIS. This year, the group pledged allegiance to their brutal Iraqi and Syrian counterparts. In April 2014, these terrorists moved into the area and began killing, kidnapping, burning and destroying churches and homes. On June 2, 2014, Boko Haram jihadists perpetrated the infamous Gwoza massacre: up to 500 males were slaughtered. Then, on August 24, Boko Haram declared the town of Gwoza their headquarters. One man, an elderly Christian minister, narrowly escaped death by scrambling up into the hills. His home was burnt out.
Many escaped the slaughter in Gwoza with only the clothes they wore. Over 450 of them are now living in the IDP camp. They survive on church generosity and handouts organized by Stefanos. The conditions are pitiful and the drafty rooms are cold during the December nights. Most of the refugees are eager to return home to Gwoza as soon as possible, even though they have limited cause for optimism.
While Nigeria's military, under the new Federal President Muhammadu Buhari, together with increasingly effective civilian self-defense groups, are gaining some ground against Boko Haram, there is little prospect that families can return to or rebuild their lives back in Gwoza itself in the near future.
Ben and Gloria Kwashi and Mark Lipdo -- like many other Christians in northern Nigeria -- are faithful, courageous, visionary and inspirational. They spread hope, joy and generosity in the darkest of places, and it is certainly appropriate to highlight and celebrate their endeavors at Christmas time.
But the tide is flowing strongly against them. Through violence, persecution and discrimination, over the centuries and especially over the past decade, Islam has chased Christianity out of the heartlands of the Middle East as well as across North Africa. The same may be happening in northern Nigeria.
So despite the joy of Christmas, rising militant Islam means it is a bleak winter for many there, and indeed around the world.
Alan Craig served for eight years as a Councilman in east London, England.