Beaten and Burned for Praising Jesus: A Nigerian Student’s Tragic Death
On May 12, a young female student — Deborah Samuel — was beaten to death and burned to ashes in Sokoto, Nigeria for praising Jesus on a WhatsApp group chat site. A gang of her radical Muslim classmates saw her post, became enraged, and murdered her. Deborah’s “crime?” She was accused of blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Mohammad — a crime that calls for a death sentence according to Sharia Law.
Deborah was rejoicing online because she had successfully passed her exams at Shehu Shagari College of Education, located in northwest Nigeria. According to Open Doors, she posted, “Jesus Christ is the greatest. He helped me pass my exams.” For that message and other similar comments, she was murdered.
A gruesome video of the murder went viral on social media, causing outrage among the Christian community in Nigeria and across the world. And unfortunately, it was really nothing new. Brutal violence against Christians throughout the country has been not only commonplace for decades, but has dramatically increased in recent months. I was invited to discuss this crime against humanity with Joseph Backholm on “Washington Watch.” He asked me to provide some background to the story.
What I understand is that after her post on WhatsApp, a gang of young men attacked her. There was a gruesome video which showed them viciously beating here, shouting and laughing, and shouting “Allahu Akbar! Blasphemy! Blasphemy!” Then they threw petrol on her body, lit it aflame and burned her to ashes.
This seemed as violent as it gets to some observers, but sadly, it really wasn’t. If you follow Nigeria’s story, you find that this kind of thing happens continuously. This time, it was an individual student at a college and it was posted on Twitter. Since the incident was videoed and it was shown on social media it got some attention. However, we’ve had literally dozens of accounts of Christians’ houses and churches burned — with the people inside — in horrifying stories. This case is not unique, but because it was so widely viewed, it helps us focus on what continues to happen.
Joseph asked me, “What is the environment there in Nigeria that makes people feel like they can do something like this in a very public place and get away with it?”
I explained that after years and years of this violence, there’s been virtually no response from the government — or at least very, very little. And in fact, many people think the government is complicit in these attacks or is at least turning a blind eye. Nigeria’s president, Mohammadu Buhari, is a Muslim extremist. He’s surrounded himself with supporters from his particular ethnic group, the Fulani tribe. Not all Fulanis are militant, but the group that surrounds and support this president seems to be radicalized. Consequently, today’s Nigerian government is doing next to nothing about — if not being complicit in — the accelerating violence. As a result, some eight million people have fled northern Nigeria as refugees. The whole situation is so bad that nearly all the Christians in the region live in constant uncertainty and fear. Meanwhile, violence erupts nearly every week — 20 to 30 people killed and others abducted or badly wounded in reports.
Here in the U.S, it’s been hard to get any kind of response from the State Department. It was wonderful news when former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo actually declared Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) in December 2020, underscoring its years of abused religious minorities and the Nigerian government’s refusal to address the problem. Yet, less than a year later, the Biden administration erased that designation without a word of explanation. This latest violence, which continues to escalate, demands that the U.S. redesignate Nigeria as a CPC.
On Saturday, May 14 in Sokoto, according to several accounts, the protests became even more violent. Rioters, armed with machetes, knives, and sticks, and chanting Islamic prayers, demanded the release of the two suspects the police had arrested (there appeared to be more than two). Shops were looted and burned, and at least two churches were attacked and vandalized. Some of the protestors also besieged the palace of the Sultan of Sokoto, a preeminent religious leader among Nigeria’s Muslims, who make up approximately half of the country’s population.
One Nigerian Christian clergyman recently emailed friends in the U.S.: “Keep us in your prayers. The situation is so tense. It was alleged (though not fully confirmed) that two young ladies posted in response to the situation in Sokoto, and that they are said to have also blasphemed the Holy prophet. Now they are asking the government to get the ladies and have them prosecuted.”
FRC President and former USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins quickly responded to the terrible news from Sokoto, Nigeria, saying, “We are outraged by the heinous mob violence that killed Deborah Samuel in Sokoto. Beaten to death and burned for allegedly blaspheming in a WhatsApp group. The U.S. government must prioritize work to reduce such violence in Northern Nigeria.”
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom and Coalitions Coordinator at Family Research Council.