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(BWA) – The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) continues to watch the situation in Nigeria where Baptist leaders are concerned about violence between Muslims and Christians.

“Religion is being used as a veneer or as a front or cover in order to take control of the state,” according to Solomon Ishola, general secretary of the Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC).

Ishola was responding to the recent violence in Plateau State, where clashes between Muslims and Christians have been taking place. The most recent incidents occurred in early March when more than 500 Christians were killed in villages close to Jos, the administrative capital of Plateau State; most were women and children.

Plateau State has a long history of conflicts. Fighting between Muslim and Christian factions in January led to approximately 500 deaths and an estimated 5,000 people displaced. Approximately 300 were killed in 2008, and an estimated 1,000 people died in 2001 during allegedly religious clashes.

Plateau State is in the middle of the divide between Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north and the predominately Christian south. The clashes are mainly between ethnic groups, Ishola said. “It is a struggle between indigenous people and settlers.” Ishola heads the largest Baptist convention in Africa and is a BWA vice president.

The Hausa-Fulani are the settlers and are mostly Muslim; the Birom are the indigenous minority group in Plateau State and are predominantly Christian. “Plateau State is traditionally Christian,” Ishola said, but with the Hausa-Fulani fast becoming the majority, Christians are resisting attempts by that group to take control of the state.

Plateau State is one of a few traditionally Christian states, including Benue State, which is bordered by other states that are controlled by the Hausa-Fulani. A number of these historically Muslim states have established Sharia law, a form of Islamic jurisprudence.

Baptists have been affected by the clashes. In January, six Baptist members were killed and seven Baptist churches burned. Baptists, who are mainly in the southwest and in the Delta region of Nigeria, are deeply concerned about the conflict. Migrant workers in the oil-rich Delta, many of whom come from other states, including Plateau, are worried about their families. “Many Baptists in other parts of Nigeria have relatives there,” Ishola said.

The NBC, which has 2.5 million members in 9,500 churches, has given aid to victims of the clashes. In January, the NBC sent approximately $55,000 after the violence.

The BWA has condemned the violence and has called on all Baptists to pray for Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.

“We are saddened by the continued violence deeply impacting Christian communities in Nigeria and regret the ongoing loss of human lives caused by this ethnic and religious unrest,” said Raimundo Barreto, director of the BWA’s Division of Freedom and Justice. “The BWA calls on all Baptists around the world to pray for those who are experiencing grief and sorrow and urges Nigerian and international authorities to take all necessary actions to ensure a permanent end of these conflicts.”

In the meantime, the NBC is working through the Nigeria Interreligious Council to try and help stem the violence. The council, which includes Christian and Muslim leaders, “aims to bridge the gap, bring peace and challenge the government to protect life and property and to compensate persons for the loss of life and property,” Ishola said.

The NBC participates in the Nigeria Interreligious Council with other Christian bodies that are affiliated with the Christian Council of Nigeria and the Christian Association of Nigeria.

Ishola blamed the federal government for lacking the will to address the crisis. “The national leaders lack the political will to deal with the situation due to the dynamics of religion in the country.” The leaders, Ishola said, “may have sympathy with the settlers.”

Ishola feared the breakup of his country, which is dogged by ethnic differences and conflicts. “Nigeria is several countries in one,” he said. “Tribes that are being molested and persecuted may lose patience.”

Christians, he said, “are optimistic that if there are able leaders,” the breakup of Nigeria can be avoided.

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