Nigerian Christians and Muslims have traded sharp words as a new wave of religious violence moved across Africa’s most populous nation.
A Christmas Day bomb killed an estimated 35 people at St. Theresa Catholic Church outside the nation’s capital of Abuja.
A radical Islamic group, Boko Haram, took credit for the attack.
“There will never be peace until our demands are met,” said a Boko Haram spokesman. “We want all our brothers who have been incarcerated to be released; we want full implementation of the Sharia system and we want democracy and the constitution to be suspended.”
Two days later, six children were injured when a bomb was thrown into an Arabic school in Sapele, a town located in the predominantly Christian region of Nigeria.
A Christian family of three was shot and killed by Muslims the following day in a village near Jos.
Nigeria, a former British colony, is divided between mostly Christians in the southern region and mostly Muslims in the north.
Sa’ad Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto, condemned the actions of Boko Haram.
“I want to assure all Nigerians that there is no conflict between Muslims and Christians, between Islam and Christianity,” said Abubakar, the country’s leading Islamic authority, two days after Christmas when he met with Nigeria’s president.
In another statement, he said: “We are totally against what has been happening, we totally condemn all these. Nobody can take anybody’s life, it’s un-Islamic, it’s ungodly, nobody can take anybody’s life, all lives are sacred, must be respected and protected by all.”
When asked he if was afraid to speak against Boko Haram, Abubakar said: “There is no fear, I only speak as Muslim leader and leader of Muslims and you know that we don’t say what we don’t mean and what we don’t do. It is against Islam, a special verse in the Holy Koran said so, don’t speak what you don’t do. It is distasteful in the eyes of Almighty Allah. But we are quite aware of Almighty Allah’s instruction to always speak the truth because we will go back to him to give account for what we have done on earth. So whatever we say to anybody or any group at any time, we wholly mean so.”
Ayo Oritsejafor, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), issued a statement on Dec. 28, which said that CAN viewed the pattern of Islamic attacks “as a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria as an entity.”
The statement said: “The Christian community has found the responses of the Supreme Council for Islamic affairs and other Islamic bodies on this matter to be unacceptable and abdication of their responsibilities over their extremist members. It is on record that most religious, traditional and political leaders in the North have not come out openly to condemn the extremist activities of Boko Haram, we hold them responsible for what is happening, because they have not taken concrete steps to check the excesses of their members.”
CAN said it had lost confidence in the government’s ability to protect the rights of Christians and that a Christian consensus existed that Christians had no option but to respond in kind to Islamic attacks.
Saidu Dogo, secretary general of CAN for the northern provinces of Nigeria, said: “We fear that the situation may degenerate to a religious war and Nigeria may not be able to survive one. Once again, ‘enough is enough.'”
The Islamic group Jama’atu Nasril Islam criticized Oritsejafor’s statement, accusing CAN of wanting to inflame Christians against Muslims.
“In essence, the man has already called for war. He said that there is going to be a civil war in this country. It is very astonishing for such a person to say that Muslims have not condemned the act when more than two dozens of prominent Muslim scholars have condemned what happened at Madalla,” said Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, secretary general of Jama’atu Nasril Islam.
“The Sultan himself has declared that the attack was un-Islamic and yet, he said that was unacceptable. We don’t know whether he wants us to jump the gun and arrest faceless people whom the government has not been able to arrest and then kill them by shooting them,” he said.
Felix Alaba Job, archbishop of Ibadan, said that Boko Haram had “declared war on Nigeria.”
He called on “our peace-loving Muslims … only to publicly denounce but for their own good and the good of Nigeria, to be proactive and to do everything positive to end this movement.”
In an undated interview, Samson Olasupo Ayokunle, general secretary of Nigerian Baptist Convention, said “churches should be vigilant” about Boko Haram and have private security during worship services.
The Christmas Day bombing was condemned by the Islamic Society of North America.
ISNA’s president, Mohamed Magid, said, “We … ask all Muslim community members and organizations in Nigeria to lend support to the families who lost loved ones during these attacks, and we urge American Muslims to join them in praying that God may ease the suffering of all those affected by this terrible tragedy.”
Pope Benedict XVI also condemned the bombings.
“Once again I want to repeat: Violence is a path that leads only to pain, destruction and death; respect, reconciliation and love are the paths to peace,” said the pope.
The first Baptist response was from David Coffey, then president of the Baptist World Alliance.