Igbo Jews: A Threatened Community
When Rabbi Ima Alleluia Nwachukwu heard gunshots outside her synagogue, she suspected something was wrong. She cautiously walked outside to see what was happening. There, she saw people crying, panting, and running frantically in different directions for safety. Firmly, mothers clutched their babies in their arms while finding cover. Their Jewish community—Yahweh Yashua Synagogue—had been attacked by security agents, government employees who maintain law and order. Moments later, it was silent except for the sound of wind blowing across the now-deserted street.
The reason for the attack: They were practicing the Jewish religion. After the shooting, police arrested and detained some members of the community. Nwachukwu and a few others escaped.
In Nigeria, Jewish worshippers are facing persecution—harassment, arrests, raids, and detention from security agents who invade their places of worship on a regular basis. Whenever their synagogues are raided, their religious materials—Torahs and Tanakhs—are taken away and destroyed.
Nwachukwu is the rabbi of a synagogue located in Umuahia, Southern Nigeria with about 100 worshippers—predominantly women. It is 2 p.m. on a sweltering afternoon in February, 2018. Inside the synagogue, congregants are draped in their white Jewish robes and tallitot, wearing kippot. The synagogue is decorated with Israeli flags, and hamsas adorn the windows and doors leading to a temple in the synagogue.
“They came here and destroyed everything,” Nwachukwu says. “They desecrated our temple and removed the Israeli flag, which is an abomination. Look at the building, they destroyed it with bullet[s]. You can see it on the walls.”
On the walls of the synagogue are bullet holes, piercing through to the other side. Uka Immanuella, who was in the compound when the attack happened, recalls she took cover when the sounds of gunshots rang out almost a year ago.
“We [were] just practicing our religion when they started shooting,” Immanuella says. “They were shooting because they came to arrest and intimidate us. We did nothing wrong.”
Most of the Jewish worshippers in Nigeria are members of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra [IPOB]—a group agitating for the creation of a separate state from Nigeria since 2015 under the leadership of Nnamdi Kanu.
Kanu, a British-Nigerian, founded IPOB in 2014 to agitate for the secession of Southeastern Nigeria. In 2015, he was arrested and detained in prison without a trial for more than a year-and-a-half despite court orders for his release.
In 2018, the government declared IPOB a terrorist organization after a violent confrontation with security forces. This move was, however, condemned as political since the group neither attacks citizens nor carries arms.
“These people are not armed and do not cause [trouble],” Paul Nzor, a conflict expert says. “It was a wrong move by the government.”
The group says the wave of attacks on them by security forces have increased since Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017.
Last year, nine people were arrested and taken away by the police. IPOB said those arrested were Jewish worshippers, but police insisted they were suspected members of the outlawed IPOB. They were charged and a magistrate court in Umuahia remanded them in prison.
“They came here and took away nine elders of our community and tagged us terrorists because we [were] practicing our religion,” Nwachukwu says. “Many were killed while others were taken to the hospital. Our leader [Kanu] is a Jewish man,” she said.
After the arrest of nine worshippers, members of the synagogue decided to stage a peaceful protest for the release of their members and to demand the creation of a Biafran state in Nigeria. But it didn’t go well. Those who protested were arrested yet again.
Peaceful protests are sometimes not allowed by authorities in Nigeria for fear they may turn violent. Even when letters are written and permission is sought by the protesters, the requests are often turned down or ignored.
“Our peaceful march was informed by the need to have a Jewish nation in Biafra land,” Israel Ibe, one of the protesters said. “We need to be allowed to be on our own as we are not free with the Nigerian government.” The protesters’ goal is not to create an additional Jewish state, but a Biafran separatist state that is more accepting of Jewish citizens than Nigeria.
“You are asking of IPOB, I’m I not in the compound of [the] IPOB leader,” Nwachukwu said when asked if she is a member of IPOB. “We are all members because the IPOB leader is a Jewish man and the head in the whole of Africa. That’s why we are here.”
A human rights activist in Nigeria, Olu Omotayo, says the frequent arrests and harassment of members of the Jewish community are an attack on their fundamental human rights.
“These are peaceful people who do not cause harm or injury to anyone,” Omotayo says. “It is an abuse on their fundamental human rights as stipulated in the constitution and other international conventions.”
Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights calls for freedom of belief and religion. The Nigerian constitution of 1999 corroborates this in section 38  where it establishes the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
But Nwachkwu says she fears another attack. The frequent attacks on their synagogue have affected their religion and way of life.
“Anytime we wear our religious garments, they see us as [a] threat and start harassing us,” she says. “We should be allowed to practice our religion. It is not a crime.”
How to cite this page
Egwu, Patrick. "Igbo Jews: A Threatened Community." 4 April 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 8, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/plight-nigerian-jews>.