Islamist militants set off bombs across Nigeria on Christmas day – three targeting churches including one that killed at least 27 people – raising fears that they are trying to ignite sectarian civil war.
The Boko Haram Islamist sect, which aims to impose sharia law across the country, claimed responsibility for the three church bombs, the second Christmas in a row the group has caused mass carnage with deadly bombings of churches. Security forces also blamed the sect for two other blasts in the north.
These explosions that struck the nation's north-east - one blast struck a church in the north-eastern town of Gadaka and two explosions rocked the northern city of Damaturu, brought the total to five blasts.
These attacks follow a military crackdown in which authorities and a right group say up to 100 people were killed. The chief of army staff was quoted by local media as saying soldiers had killed 59 Boko Haram members in Damaturu in shoot-outs on Thursday and Friday.
Violence blamed on the sect has steadily worsened in recent months, with bombings becoming more frequent and sophisticated. At least 280 people have been killed since November.
Boko Haram – which in the Hausa language spoken in northern Nigeria means “Western education is sinful” – is loosely modeled on the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. It has emerged as the biggest security threat in Nigeria, a country of 160 million split evenly between Christians and Muslims, who for the most part live side by side in peace.
Boko Haram launched an uprising in 2009 that was put down by a brutal military assault which left some 800 dead. Its mosque and headquarters in the northeastern city of Maiduguri were left in ruins.
The group went dormant for a time, then re-emerged in 2010 with a series of assassinations.
The assaults come a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded.
Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and has the world's sixth-largest Christian population -- about 80.5 million people as of 2010, according to a report published this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington. That makes the country just over 50% Christian, according to Pew.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the attacks, four of which targeted church services, as "dastardly act[s] that must attract the rebuke of all peace-loving Nigerians."
However, this was insufficient to appease public anger. A small number of demonstrators from Christian groups gathered in Abuja on Monday to protest what they called the government's inadequate response to the violence, and Nigerian news websites carried many comments from Nigerians who said they found Mr. Jonathan's remarks and response inadequate.
The Nigerian people noted that while Mr. Jonathan insisted the government remains committed to tackling terror attacks and calming religious tension, he had made the same pledge in August after Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a bombing at a United Nations building in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, that killed at least 21 people and injured 60.
Globally, the attacks were widely condemned, with the Vatican calling them a “blind and absurd terrorist violence”. “We are close to the suffering of the Nigerian Church and the entire Nigerian people so tried by terrorist violence, even in these days that should be of joy and peace,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his condolences “to the people of Nigeria and to the bereaved families”. “The Secretary-General calls once again for an end to all acts of sectarian violence in the country and reiterates his firm conviction that no objective sought can justify this resort to violence,” a statement released by his office said.
Meanwhile, the White House condemned “this senseless violence and tragic loss of life on Christmas day”.
Report: Nigerian official condemns 'mindless and cowardly' church attacks that left dead, wounded [CNN, 27 Dec 2011]
Report: Deadly Nigeria bomb attacks condemned by world leaders [BBC, 25 Dec 2011]