Christians in Nigeria targeted by violent Islamic sect

For the second year in a row, the peace and joy of Christmas in Nigeria was shattered by religiously motivated violence.

A deadly series of coordinated terrorist attacks on Christmas Day in Nigeria have heightened fears in the West African nation that Islamic extremists are driving a wedge between Christians and Muslims, pushing the country closer to civil war.

The most shocking of the Christmas Day attacks was the bombing of a crowded church. A suicide car bomb was detonated on the street in front of St. Theresa Catholic Church in the small town of Madalla, not far from the capital of Abuja.

According to published reports, 37 people died in the attack and 57 others were wounded.

A radical Islamic sect known as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the carnage.

That same day, terrorists also struck other churches and a police station in northern Nigeria.

In response to the attacks, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in certain parts of the country. He has also deployed additional troops to northern Nigeria, Boko Haram's stronghold, in hopes of quelling the violence.

The terrorist group has responded with further violence, attacking police and civilians.

On Christmas Eve of 2010, Islamists launched terrorist attacks in the religiously mixed city of Jos, killing 31 people.

Islamic Jihad

Just days after the recent Christmas bombings, Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), declared publicly that Christians are the targets of "Islamic Jihad."

"It is considered as a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria," he reportedly said. "CAN has found the responses of ... Islamic bodies on this matter to be unacceptable and an abdication of their responsibilities."

However, not everyone shares that view.

A press release from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) states that John Olurunfemi Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, has chided the media for suggesting that Nigeria is on the brink of civil war.

According to the international Catholic pastoral charity, "Eight Imams of central mosques in Abuja paid a visit to the Archbishop after the attacks to express their condolences. He also received many letters of sympathy from Muslims."

Complex society

About half of the population of Nigeria is Muslim, living primarily in the northern regions. Approximately 40% of Nigeria's 160 million people are Christian, most of who live in the South. Approximately 10% of the population follow indigenous beliefs.

Nigerian-Canadian Segun Olude has first-hand knowledge of life in impoverished Nigeria.

Segun founded Promised Land Ministries along with his wife, Titi.

"Although I live and work in Canada, my wife Titi and I go to Nigeria at least once a year to help educate pastors and community leaders in faith-based community development," Segun tells ChristianWeek.

"We believe that the church is more than just a building," he says. "It is the community around it."

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is a complex society.

"We have to understand that some aspects of the Nigerian political foundations are based on tribal, language and religious beliefs," Segun explains.

"The Boko Haram attacks are already forcing people to examine the structure of the country," he says. "No doubt, this will put a lot of pressure on the leadership of the country."

Islamic state

The goal of Boko Haram is to replace Nigeria's secular system of government with an Islamic republic ruled by Sharia or Islamic law.

The militants, who are often compared to the brutal Taliban of Afghanistan, have already managed to compromise the secular nature of state governments in the country's northern region, where the Christian minority has had to endure repeated attacks.

Boko Haram has launched numerous assaults on police stations in the North, openly challenging the authority of the state. And to fund its reign of terror, the militant sect routinely robs banks.

A month before the Christmas Day massacre at St. Theresa Catholic Church, Boko Haram cut a trail of tears across northeast Nigeria.

During the first week of November, Boko Haram fighters laid siege to the northern Nigerian town of Damataru, capital of Yobe state. Targeting mostly Christians, the insurgents reportedly killed at least 100 people and attacked five churches.

The radicals also attacked moderate Muslims and police.

Last August, Boko Haram unleashed a deadly suicide bomb attack on United Nations compound in the capital, killing 23 people and wounding 81.

"The terrorist campaign being waged by Boko Haram is escalating very dangerously with the bombing of the Nigerian Police HQ [headquarters], then the UN Building in Abuja, and now the Christmas Day bombing of the Catholic church near Abuja," says Nigerian-Canadian Emeka Njoku.

Emeka, who travels to Nigeria twice a year and was in his home village when contacted by ChristianWeek, says that he believes over 300 people were killed in the recent Christmas Day attacks.

"People are living in fear and do not know what to expect next," he says.

"If we go by what we have seen in the past few months," says Segun, "one can safely say that the frequency of attacks and the impact is getting worse. This does seem to support the idea that things may get worse in the coming months."

The rapidly deteriorating situation is having a negative impact on Promised Land Ministries.

"The current situation is seriously affecting our mission plan" for 2012, says Segun.

A plan to conduct seminars in northern Nigeria has been put on hold. "It would be irresponsible to have a Christian gathering in a volatile area, which is pretty much any of the Northern States at this time," he says.

Possible civil war

Since 1999, nearly 15,000 people have died in sectarian violence in Nigeria.

Given the escalating violence in Nigeria, is civil war imminent?

Emeka admits that he "does not really know the real answer as to whether Christians and Muslims can live together in Nigeria."

"All I know is that Boko Haram's goal is to make Nigeria an Islamic State with Sharia as the supreme constitution. If this happens then I know that my people [Christians] would never accept such a country. Nigeria must be secular or forget it."

Segun remains optimistic about the future.

"Even today," he says, "Islamic leaders and groups are now speaking out against Boko Haram and their current tactics, saying that bombing innocent people is un-Islamic."

"While words like this are re-assuring," says Segun. "Practical steps need to be taken by both Christians and Muslim leaders in tandem with government initiatives, to quell the fire being fanned by Boko Haram."

According to Emeka, civil war in Nigeria it is not inevitable. "But the Christians will not fold their hands to be slaughtered like rams by Islamist terrorists," he warns.

Unfortunately, suspected vigilantes have already launched at least one reprisal bombing attack against an Islamic school in southern Nigeria. Six children and one adult were reportedly injured by a low yield explosive device.

"I personally would like to appeal to Christians not to go on reprisal attacks or seek violent revenge," Segun pleads.

"We have to remember our common humanity, and allow one another to express their religious beliefs in peace. I stand on the side of peace and I'm hopeful," he says.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.