More Churches Destroyed in Northern Nigeria

Friday, March 2, 2001

Sharia-related Tension Continues to Breed Violence
by Obed Minchakpu

GUSAU, Nigeria (Compass) -- At least five churches were destroyed during February in northern Nigeria as the controversial implementation of Islamic law continued in several states.

St. Dominic's Catholic Church was demolished on February 14 in Dashi, a village located 12 kilometers from Gusau, the state capital of Zamfara state. Zamfara Governor Alhaji Ahmed Sani had forcefully converted the church into an Islamic school in January.

Christian Leaders told Compass that some of the persons who attacked the church have been arrested and that it has been confirmed that they were instructed to carry out the demolition by unnamed Muslim leaders in the state. The attackers were said to be angered that Christian leaders criticized the conversion of the church to an Islamic school.

However, Alhaji Kaka Abdullahi Dashi, the Muslim village chief of Dashi, said nobody contacted him before the church demolition was carried out. He also said he had always lived peacefully with his neighbors irrespective of their religious persuasions.

Zamfara State Police Commissioner Aaron Ibiloye said that police had arrested three suspects, all Muslims: Bala Musa Amulle, Umaru Helema, and Mamman Tunlubuchi. Ibiloye said that the suspects confessed to demolishing the church building. The three are being held in custody while they await trial.

Governor Sani declared Zamfara an Islamic state in 1999, despite protests by Christians in Nigeria against the introduction of Islamic law. Christians hinged their protests on the fact that the Nigerian Constitution forbids states from adopting any religion as the state religion.

On February 24, riots in Gombe town of Gombe state by Muslims primarily from the Shia Islamic sect resulted in two churches being burned and an unknown number of deaths. The police would not disclose the number of Christians killed during the riots for fear it would incite reprisals from the Christian community.

Gombe State Deputy Commissioner of Police James Duke said the rioters set ablaze Calvary Baptist Church and another church and destroyed other Christian property. He said they were protesting against the visit to Gombe on February 20 of the Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria. At the same time, they were pressing for the implementation of the Islamic legal system in the state, Duke said.

The deputy police commissioner told Compass that five rioters were killed when they attacked policemen who were trying to control the rampage. Police officials said they were forced to use live bullets to quell the riots when they discovered the rioters had sophisticated military weapons to attack Christians and other unsuspecting members of the public. Forty Muslims were arrested. They are being held in custody awaiting trial. Police did not specify what types of weapons the rioters carried.

Gombe State Governor Alhaji Abubakar Hashidu confirmed the killing of five persons and said the situation has been brought under control. He maintained that he had no right to refuse to receive a visiting ambassador accredited by the Federal Government of Nigeria and could not condone the riots.

But he assured Muslims in the state that his administration would implement the Islamic legal system and urged them to be calm.

Governor Hashidu disclosed that books on Islamic jurisprudence have been obtained by the government in preparation for the implementation of the Islamic legal system, or "sharia." He has directed the "khadis" (Islamic judges) to prepare for the application of the Islamic penal code in the state.

Gombe state has continued to experience sharia-induced violence despite assurances by the government that the introduction of the Islamic legal system would not undermine the peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians. Late last year, 25 persons were killed in Muslim-Christian clashes.

Also in February, two churches were burned in Hadejia town of Jigawa state during a religious conflict. St. James Anglican Church and a Pentecostal church were set ablaze by Muslim extremists demonstrating against the existence of churches in a sharia state.

Samson Nwodo, a Christian leader in Hadejia, said that since last November, a number of clashes have occurred between Muslims and Christians over the sharia issue.

"Since the introduction of the controversial sharia in northern Nigeria, we, the Christians, have been under constant harassment, intimidation, and humiliation here," Nwodo said. He appealed to the federal government to intervene in the interest of peace between the adherents of the two faiths. He warned that unless this is done, the incessant violent clashes between Christians and Muslims may escalate.

Jigawa state adopted Islamic law in August 2000. Christian leaders in the state have voiced opposition to the marginalization of Christians, the denial of land to build new churches, the restrictions placed on rehabilitating old church buildings and the regulation of their daily activities by sharia enforcers who are government agents. Christians constitute about 30 percent of Jigawa's population.

Throughout northern Nigeria, Muslim political leaders in states that have adopted Islamic law claim it is only applicable to the Muslims. But Christian leaders say Christians in the country have become victims of the Islamic legal system.

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.