FALLS CHURCH, Va. (ABP) — A Nigerian Baptist leader says politics is the driving force behind recent religious massacres and riots in central Nigeria.
"Religion is being used as a veneer or as a front or cover in order to take control of the state," Simon Ishola, general secretary of the Nigerian Baptist Convention told leaders of the Baptist World Alliance.
Recent clashes have killed hundreds in the Plateau State, a border area between Nigeria's Muslim north and predominantly Christian south. At least 13 people were killed March 17 by armed herdsmen near the state's central city of Jos. Earlier in March, more than 500 villagers, mostly Christians, died in an attack blamed on Muslim herders from nearby hills.
While typically reported violence between Christians and Muslims, Ishola said the struggle is between ethnic groups.
The Birom people, indigenous to one of the few traditionally Christian states in the border area, are predominantly Christian but are a minority of the population. The Hausa-Fulani, Muslim livestock herders regarded as outsiders, are fast becoming the majority, causing resistance from Christians who fear the group will take over the state and impose Shariah Law.
While the Nigerian Baptist Convention, with 2.5 million members the largest Baptist convention in Africa, has churches concentrated in more stable areas of Nigeria's southwest and delta regions, Baptists have not been immune from the conflict.
In January six Baptist members were killed while seven Baptist churches were burned. In November 2008 at least 12 Nigerian Baptists were killed and five Baptist churches burned in riots following a local election in Plateau state. Many Baptists in other parts of Nigeria have relatives who live there, Ishola said.
The BWA condemned the violence and has called on all Baptists to pray for Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.
"We are saddened by the continued violence deeply impacting Christian communities in Nigeria, and regret the ongoing loss of human lives caused by this ethnic and religious unrest," said Raimundo Barreto, director of the Division of Freedom and Justice of the BWA. "The BWA calls on all Baptists around the world to pray for those who are experiencing grief and sorrow; and urges Nigerian and international authorities to take all necessary actions to ensure a permanent end of these conflicts."
Ishola said Nigerian Baptists are working through the Nigeria Inter-religious Council, a group of both Christian and Muslim leaders, which "aims to bridge the gap, bring peace, and challenge the government to protect life and property and to compensate persons for the loss of life and property, to compensate persons for the loss of life and property."
Ishola said government leaders "lack the political will to deal with the situation" and "may have sympathy with the settlers."
Ishola said he fears the breakup of his country. "Nigeria is several countries in one," Ishola said. "Tribes that are being molested and persecuted may lose patience."
Still, Ishola said, Christians "are optimistic that if there are able leaders," the breakup of Nigeria can be avoided.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has said nothing will stop Nigeria's ethnic violence short of splitting the nation into Muslim and Christian states.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.