Samuel Nwankwo drove past a mob in the southeastern Nigerian town of Umuoji unaware that it was heading to attack his home.
As the chief priest of a traditional religion in the area, he’d become a target of a crowd of Christian youths who left a revival meeting where several preachers condemned the veneration of ancestral gods. They were bent on eradicating all symbols of such worship in the town of about 30,000 people.
“They ransacked the Udume Abor shrine where we worshiped, then went to my house where they took religious objects and burned them,” Nwankwo, a 45-year-old former Christian pastor, said in an interview. “The entire house would have burned if neighbors didn’t put out the fire.”
While Islamist militants loyal to Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and Islamic State in Syria destroy cultural sites they consider idolatrous, some Christian activists in the south of Africa’s most populous nation are also targeting ancestral religious worship. So far no one has been injured in the raids.
More than 500 traditional-worship sites, mainly in the south, have been burned down in the past decade, along with artifacts that are often hundreds of years old and of historical significance, according to Emeka Uzoatu, a researcher affiliated to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in the south east.
Religious and ethnic divisions can be explosive in Nigeria, where more than 20,000 people have died in communal and sectarian violence in the past 15 years, according to tallies kept by Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Nigeria, home to Africa’s biggest economy and at least 250 ethnic groups, is almost evenly split between a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. More than 10 percent of its 170 million people follow traditional religions in Africa’s top oil producer, with many maintaining allegiance to more than one faith.
Attacks aimed at destroying cultural heritage around the world have reached an “unprecedented scale,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco.
Paris-based Unesco started a Unite4Heritage movement this year to counter the drive for “cultural cleansing” by religious extremists such as Islamic State in Syria. Boko Haram, which has declared loyalty to Islamic State, looted and burned the Sukur world heritage site in Adamawa state in December.
“The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime,” Unesco quoted its director-general, Irina Bokova, as saying in an e-mailed response to questions. “We will do everything possible to fight against this and document it, to ensure that those responsible are identified and brought to justice.”
In Nigeria, looted items are often illegally trafficked to Europe and the U.S. where they’re bought by art collectors, according to the Abuja-based National Commission for Museums and Monuments. The agency, set up to protect Nigeria’s cultural heritage, estimates the country’s artifacts in circulation in the global market are worth about 310 billion naira ($1.6 billion).
The Archaeological Association of Nigeria estimates that people have been persuaded by pastors and churches to hand over ancestral objects worth at least $500 million in the past decade to prove they no longer practice traditional worship.
“When I was growing up the Christians were a tiny minority and traditionalists were the vast majority,” said Nze Oforkire Ezenwa, a 63-year-old former Catholic who reverted to his ancestral religious practices 15 years ago and became a local leader. “Now we have changed places; it’s the other way around.”
Since 2008 Ezenwa has been pursuing the criminal prosecution of three Catholic priests and several congregation members for their alleged involvement in burning and destroying the Ezekoro shrine in the town of Achina, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Anambra state capital, Awka.
The attack was preceded by a three-day revival meeting, with the destruction taking place on the final day.
“They destroyed very precious artifacts that were hundreds of years old, and looted many others,” Ezenwa said in an interview at his home in Achina, which was decorated with traditional motifs and carvings. “Their next target was my house, as I was singled out in their preaching as the main leader of demon worshipers. By then our people had mobilized to stop them.”
Charges filed against the accused priests and six laymen at a court in nearby Ekwulobia town include destruction of a place of worship, stealing and violent disturbance, according to court documents obtained by Bloomberg.
The Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria in the capital, Abuja, didn’t respond to phone calls, e-mails and an office visit to Christian Anyanwu, a priest and spokesman of the church.
“There are those cases where mobs, often after a night of a religious-revival meeting, charge to a local shrine to destroy it,” Uzoatu, the university researcher, said in an interview in the southeastern city of Onitsha. “There are also those cases where individuals voluntarily destroy shrines and artifacts they inherited from their ancestors. The result is always the same, vital cultural evidence is lost.”
The government needs to fund an educational campaign against the destruction of cultural artifacts, Joseph Mangut, secretary of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria, said in a phone interview.
“The citizens need to know and be educated on the fact that we would never know where we are going to if we do not know where we came from,” he said.