(Photo: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)
Nigerian gunmen have killed at least 12 Christians, including a pastor, during raids on two churches after midnight Christmas Eve services in the latest attack on believers in the divided African country.
Police reports reveal that one of the attacks occurred at the Church of Christ in Nations in the state of Yobe at Peri village near the city of Potiskum. Another happened at First Baptist Church in Maiduguri, in Borno state, where a deacon and five church members were killed, CNN reported.
While no group has yet officially claimed responsibility for the attacks, the BBC and other sources note that the attackers were likely Islamist extremists from the Boko Haram terrorist organization, which has killed over 700 Christians and burned down dozens of churches in Nigeria this past year alone.
Zakari Adamu, head of the Network for Justice human rights group, added that several Christian families were also attacked at their homes following Midnight Mass.
"Unknown gunmen attempted to attack Potiskum but were repelled by troops," Military Spokesman Eli Lazarus told Reuters.
"While they were fleeing, they attacked a church in a village," Lazarus said. The military has apparently managed to detain one of the gunmen, but was unable to confirm how many gunmen in total carried out the attack.
Idi Garba, the head of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Yobe, told AFP: "I have been informed that six bodies have been recovered." He added that the pastor of the church was also killed in the attack.
Boko Haram has largely targeted Christians in Northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim. The group has also threatened believers in Southern Nigeria, which is mostly Christian, and have made it clear that its mission is to drive Christians out of Nigeria all together and impose Sharia law on the country.
"The Nigerian state and Christians are our enemies and we will be launching attacks on the Nigerian state and its security apparatus as well as churches until we achieve our goal of establishing an Islamic state in place of the secular state," Boko Haram explained in a statement in June.
The terrorist sect's attacks on churches last Christmas was ever more severe, as 44 people lost their lives in a series of church bombings and shootings. President Goodluck Jonathan has promised that his forces will do all they can to bring down Boko Haram, but despite a few arrests and clashes with the extremist group over the past year, the gunmen mostly remain at large.
Religious violence has been occurring in Nigeria for many years, with Christians most in danger during major religious holidays and celebrations.