Boko Haram: Christmas brings fear of church bombs

Reuters – Kneeling over a dusty grave on the outskirts of Abuja, 16-year old Hope Ehiawaguan says a prayer, lays down flowers and tearfully tells her brother she loves him.

He was one of 44 killed on Christmas Day last year when a member of Islamist sect Boko Haram rammed a car packed with explosives into the gates of St Theresa’s Church in Madalla, a satellite town 25 miles from the center of Abuja.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria and is the biggest threat to stability in the country.

Two other churches were bombed that day and on Christmas Eve 2010 over 40 people were killed in similar attacks.

This Christmas, the police and military are expecting more trouble in the north. They’ve ordered security to be tightened, people’s movement restricted and churches to be guarded.

But such is the commitment to religion in a country with Africa’s largest Christian population that millions of people will pack out thousands of churches in the coming days. It is impossible to protect everyone, security experts say.

“I feel safe,” Ehiawaguan says with uncertainty, when asked if she will come to church on December 25 this year.

“Not because of security here … because we have a greater security in heaven,” she says, wiping away her tears.

The blast in Madalla killed several people on the street and pulled down the church roof, condemning many of those trapped inside the burning building, including a 7-month old boy.

A plaque listing the names of the members of the church who were killed has been placed above their graves. The twisted metal of the cars destroyed in the blast is still there.

“I only pray to God to give them a heart,” Ehiawaguan says, when asked about her brother’s killers.

The fear for many is that more Christmas Day attacks could spark the sort of tit-for-tat sectarian violence between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south, which has claimed thousands of lives in the past decade.

“We have always insisted that Christians should not retaliate,” said Sam Kraakevik Kujiyat, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Kaduna State.

“But there is fear … we know not everyone who says he is a Christian acts like one.”

Churches were emptier than usual on Sunday in Kano and Kaduna, residents said.

Despite bolstered security in cities across the north, dual suicide bombers attacked the offices of mobile phone operators India’s Airtel and South Africa’s MTN in Kano on Saturday.

Boko Haram is not the only threat in the north.

Islamist Group called Ansaru, known to have ties with Boko Haram, has risen in prominence in recent weeks. It claimed an attack on a major police barracks in Abuja last month, where it said hundreds of prisoners were released.

The group said on Saturday that it was behind the kidnapping of a French national last week and it has been labeled a “terrorist group” by Britain.

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