Lagos, Nigeria – On July 15, Reverend Fathers Donatus Cleophas and Mark Cheitnum were in the empty rectory of Christ the King parish in Yadin Garu, a town in the Southern Kaduna area of northwest Nigeria when five armed men walked in.
Two were wielding an AK-47 rifle, another had a machete and the other two held sticks, Cleophas said.
The gunmen confiscated the phones of both priests, who had stayed to celebrate mass after an ordination service in that diocese, and led them into the muddy grounds of a maize farm near the parish.
There, Cheitnum was shot dead and his body was left in the rain, while his colleague was taken away.
“We did not have any scuffle, nothing,” Cleophas, who has since regained his freedom, told Al Jazeera. “All I can think of is because maybe Father [Mark] was wearing canvas [shoes] and he could not keep up with the pace at which we were moving.”
Their ordeal was one of the most recent in a growing trend of attacks targeted against Christians in Nigeria in recent years, according to data and experts.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), violence against Christians targeted on the basis of their religious identity has spiked, just as political violence against civilians has generally been on the rise too.
Its data shows that attacks on Christians in the country increased by 21 percent in 2021 compared with 2020. On average, monthly attacks have also risen by over 25 percent in the last year.
In June, gunmen killed dozens at a Catholic church in Ondo, spotlighting a possibly religious undertone to the country’s insecurity. The state government blamed the ISIL-linked ISWAP (Islamic State in West Africa Province) for the incident, but the group is yet to claim responsibility.
Experts say attacks against the church are also increasingly targeting Christian leaders, as operations of armed groups nationwide assume dangerous dimensions.
A number of clergymen who survived abductions refused to talk to Al Jazeera about their ordeals. One said it would be a direct threat to his life if he spoke about his experience to the media and another declined to speak after initially agreeing to an interview for fear of safety.
This August, a vehicle carrying four nuns from the southeast state of Imo to the neighbouring Rivers state in the Niger Delta, was ambushed. The police claimed to have rescued the nuns within days of their abduction but did not comment on whether ransoms had been paid.
Indeed, between January 2020 and July 2022, there were 99 independent attacks against Nigerian clergy, ranging from abductions to outright murder, according to ACLED’s database which compiled records from local media reports.
“The data is a very vivid reflection of what is going on in our society [with regards to] the economic hardship and the booming kidnapping for ransom industry that we see today,” said Olajumoke Ayandele, a former ACLED researcher and currently a postdoctoral research fellow at New York University’s The Centre for the Study of Africa and the African Diaspora.
A breakdown of the attacks shows that 34 happened in 2020, 36 in 2021 and 29 in the first seven months of 2022, a sharp increase compared with the previous decade when similar incidents were rare.
And experts say these figures may not even represent the full picture.
“I think the numbers are way higher,” Ayandele told Al Jazeera. “A lot of what filters into the media are the high profile cases. We are under-reporting the numbers.”
With Nigeria facing multifaceted security issues, multiple non-state actors including armed groups motivated by religious reasons, bandits and unidentified armed groups have been credited for the rising attacks.
Since 2020, six of the attacks have been credited to groups like Boko Haram and its offshoots ISWAP and Ansaru; 30 others have been carried out by armed bandits and 61 more by unidentified gunmen.
The attacks have also been spread across the country’s six geopolitical zones.
In the North Central region, 32 attacks were recorded, making it the deadliest region for Christian clerics in Nigeria since 2020. The North East and North West recorded 9 and 17 cases respectively.
The South West, often considered Nigeria’s safest region saw 11 attacks while there were 15 apiece in the South East and South South regions.
“It is an unfortunate situation that priests and pastors are becoming endangered species in this country,” Reverend Father Polycarp Lubo, the Plateau state chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria told Al Jazeera. “The priests are not rich themselves, so we don’t know why they have resulted in the killing and abduction of priests and pastors. CAN is not happy about the whole thing and we are condemning it totally.”
Between 2014 and 2020, there was a slew of school abductions in Nigeria, including the high-profile abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls which made global headlines.
Security experts say there has been a change in focus for perpetrators from schoolchildren to professional groups, to gain attention and legitimacy as armed groups.
Schools being closed in parts of states in the northwest for security concerns, as well as in parts of central Nigeria for academic reasons, may have also led to the change in tactics.
“Regarding the priests, the possible explanation is simply that the abductors are after money and the priests represent high value in terms of ransom payments,” Malik Samuel, Abuja-based researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, said. “Nothing stops them from moving on to other people if measures are put in place to protect the priests.”
“When you kidnap or kill a Christian priest, you get local and as well international attention and that brings legitimacy to your ransom demand saying: ‘We are very serious,’” Ayandele said. “And the fact that the government is under pressure and Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) is under pressure to give in to their ransom… it is very targeted.”
‘My experience…was hell’
The Catholic Church has been the hardest-hit denomination, with data showing that half of all 120 clergy members abducted or killed within this period – including seminarians and nuns – were within its fold.
The church has not officially commented on paying ransoms to free abducted clergy but is believed to be paying nonetheless.
‘’We [speaking for all churches] have been paying ransoms because life is more important than money,” Lubo said. “And they have been having negative serious impacts on Christians, most of all on the families of the priests. The ransoms are very huge on the church and devastating on the families. People have been going beyond their means to save lives.”
The chairman called the attacks “persecution of Christians in Nigeria”, echoing what some Christian leaders have said about the attacks.
But security researchers told Al Jazeera that the abductions are driven by the church’s capacity to make ransom payments, not religious factors, except in the cases credited to Boko Haram and its affiliates.
“When there are unaddressed conflicts, there are other actors who take advantage,” Samuel said. “It tends to breed more insecurity. These abductions we have seen is not entirely a jihadist issue.”
But the situation is “driving towards a confrontation between Muslims and Christians,” he added.
Four days after the abduction, Cleophas escaped. His captors were out receiving a ransom payment of 3.6 million naira ($8,443) for Cheitnum – even though they had killed him – and the member of the group they left on guard duty had nodded off.
It is an experience the priest still remembers vividly.
“My experience in those four days was hell,” he told Al Jazeera. “At a point, I even desired death than even being with them because it was dehumanising and animalistic. They told me they were going to kill me.”