Nigeria gripped news headlines over Christmas weekend when Islamic extremists bombed Christian churches in five different cities. Though such tragedies give the appearance of rampant religious violence, many experts now caution that religion is just one among several factors fueling strife in the West African nation.
As reported yesterday by The Christian Post, 39 people were killed when terrorists bombed churches in the cities of Madalla, Jos, Kano, Damaturu and Gadaka, on Christmas Day. The violence has intensified since then, with the city of Potiskum suffering arson at 30 different Christian shops and civilians fleeing the various attack sites.
John Campbell, the Council on Foreign Relations' Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, said that although religion remains a divisive issue in Nigeria, it isn't the only concern causing the country problems.
"Where there tends to be religious conflict in Nigeria is when ethnic, religious and economic boundaries coincide," he said. "All these factors are interconnected."
Campbell said Nigeria was Africa's most populous country, packing in an estimated 165 million people within its borders. Its ethnic and economic differences are widespread, he said, given Nigeria contains 350 different ethnic groups that span careers ranging from farmers to herders. It's also ripe for religious conflict, he added, given the country is split nearly evenly between southern Christians and northern Muslims.
"What you have here is claims and counter-claims," Campbell said. "Too many spokespeople from each religion regard each other with disdain. Nigeria is dancing on the brink. The question is whether or not it will fall off."
Jonathan Racho, the International Christian Concern's regional manager for Africa, said the two faiths first engaged each other in serious conflict three decades ago. As time wore on, growing disparities in wealth and increased government corruption made matters worse. The latest source of tension between the two is Sharia, he concluded, the practice of Islamic holy law that extremist Muslims want implemented across Nigeria.
"The primary cause of conflict is the Islamic religion," Racho said. "Christians in Nigeria need a lot of help. There are continuous attacks on the church there."
Nina Shea – a Hudson Institute senior scholar, the director of its Center for Religious Freedom and a commissioner on the United States Council on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) – said that the push towards Sharia serves as a battleground for Christians and Muslims over religious freedom. Extremists like the Boko Haram group behind the Christmas Day bombings, she said, want to ensure strict fundamentalism in Nigeria's laws. Should they prevail, she cautioned that it could plunge the African nation into an abyss of self-destruction.
"Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, a regional power, a significant oil exporter and an ally," Shea said. "It is critical for both humanitarian and strategic reasons that its society, which is split almost evenly between Muslims and Christians, not enter a period of escalating religious violence."
Campbell said that 12 of Nigeria's northern states let Muslims practice Sharia alongside secular government law. Boko Haram (whose name means "Western civilization is forbidden") is such a problem, he said, given Nigeria's Christian population has expanded drastically during the last few decades.
"There has been an explosive growth of Christianity in Nigeria and they're now in areas they are not normally present in," Campbell said. "Christianity there is huge, vibrant and growing."
Jerry Dykstra, the media relations director for Open Doors USA, said events in Nigeria should concern Christians regardless of their underlying cause. He said his organization had identified Nigeria as the site of 2011's largest number of martyrs, or those killed for their public identification as Christians. Nigeria had 300 confirmed martyrs as of Nov. 1, he said, a number that was likely higher given the bombings that happened after research was collected and poor reporting conditions were prevalent on the ground. Continued harm to its Christian community, he said, would hurt the Church worldwide.
"We as Christians need to be concerned about Boko Haram disrupting the peace of Nigeria and the possibility of civil war," Dykstra said. "It sends thousands of missionaries throughout Africa. For that to be disrupted would surely prove a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel throughout the continent."