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Christian leaders in Nigeria have accused Muslims of making a “declaration of war” after a series of fatal church attacks, further raising fears of sectarian conflict.
Militants targeted churches in a series of explosions on Christmas Day, leaving more than 40 people dead and dozens wounded. On Tuesday a Christian couple and their one-year-old baby were shot dead.
Stirring tensions further on Tuesday, unknown attackers lobbed a crude homemade bomb into an Islamic school in Delta state, wounding seven people including six children in an Arabic class.
Nigeria is largely divided into a Muslim north and Christian south, although members of the two faiths live everywhere across the country, do business together and intermarry.
With the shadowy Muslim fundamentalist sect Boko Haram stepping up deadly attacks in recent months, Christian leaders have warned that they will take action to protect themselves.
Victims of ‘jihad’
At a meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday, Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella group for all denominations, said Christians had become victims of “jihad”.
“It is considered as a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria as an entity,” Oritsejafor said.
He did not want to encourage acts of revenge, he said, but “Christians should protect themselves — in any way they can”.
Oritsejafor criticised Muslim leaders and the government for failing to intervene.
“The consensus is that the Christian community nationwide will be left with no other option than to respond appropriately if there are any further attacks on our members, churches and property.”
Jonathan, a Christian, promised to do more to combat the threat of Islamists and hinted at a reshuffle in his security services.
“We will restructure — and make sure we get a team that will meet with the challenge we are facing today,” he said. “I will plead with religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian leaders, to work together.”
Calls for calm
On Tuesday, Nigeria’s main Muslim cleric, the sultan of Sokoto, denounced the Christmas Day attacks and called for calm. “I want to assure all Nigerians that there is no conflict between Muslims and Christians, between Islam and Christianity,” he said.
But tensions are running high in the nation’s so-called middle belt, where north and south meet. On Tuesday night in a village near the city of Jos, in Plateau state, a Christian couple and their one-year-old child were murdered in an attack blamed on Muslim herdsmen.
Last week Boko Haram was involved in heavy gun battles with government forces in the north-eastern city of Damaturu. The clashes displaced 90 000 people and the entire district of Pompomari emptied as residents fled, an official said.
Boko Haram, dubbed the Nigerian Taliban, is seeking to implement strict sharia law across Nigeria. The group has caused bloodshed two Christmases in a row and is responsible for at least 504 killings this year alone, according to a count by the Associated Press.
Boko Haram claimed three bomb attacks on churches this Christmas, including one that killed 27 worshippers in a Catholic church near the capital, Abuja, and one in Jos. Abu Qaqa, a spokesman for the group, was quoted in the local press on Wednesday as saying the bombs were revenge for attacks in Jos by Christian youths on Muslims during an Islamic holiday in August.
In Jos, Reuters reported, local Muslims are wary of a possible Christian backlash. “We are just beginning to live in peace, so we hope our Christian brothers can help us keep that peace,” said Mohammed Kabir, who like many Nigerian Muslims resents being associated with violent extremism. “Boko Haram is not all Islam.”
Last year the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi proposed that Nigeria be divided into two countries to avoid religious conflict. The idea was dismissed with contempt at the time: all northern states have substantial Christian minorities and up to half of Nigeria’s south-western Yoruba ethnic group are thought to be Muslim.
But now Gaddafi’s radical solution resonates with some Christians. Papa Jimba (46) leader of the Christian community in a Jos neighbourhood, told Reuters: “Let us divide Nigeria. The Muslims go to their side and the Christians stay on our side. Then peace can come back. I’m even praying for that.”
The Rev Philip Mwelbish, head of CAN for Plateau state, said: “People thought Gaddafi was mad, but I’ve started to see the sense in what he said. If we can’t exist together with our Muslim brothers, then they can build their houses over there, and we build ours here.
“We have a proverb in Nigeria: If you push a goat to the wall, he will bite you. They’ve pushed us to the wall.”—
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