Christians in Nigeria are bracing for attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram. For two years, Boko Haram has attacked Christians over the Christmas holiday. In 2011, St. Theresa's Church was attacked by a suicide bomber and killed 44 people. The year before that, two churches were bombed on Christmas Eve, killing over 40 people. Will Christians be safe this year?
12/24/2012 Nigeria (Reuters) - Kneeling over a dusty grave on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital, 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 Africa's top oil exporter.
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.
Security experts believe Boko Haram is targeting worshippers to spark a religious conflict in a country of 160 million people split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims.
The sect has also targeted Mosques in the past and assassinated Imams who have questioned its insurgency. In the group's stronghold in the northeast, where most of its attacks occur, Muslims are equally at threat as Christians.
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, one of the areas worst hit by inter-religious violence in recent years.
"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 northern cities of Kano and Kaduna, local residents said.