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Friday, May 19, 2006

Rising fears of renewed religious violence in Nigeria ‘s Plateau State

By Michael Ireland

Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

JOS, NIGERIA (ANS) — Tension is rising in Jos, capital of the Plateau State in Nigeria as a predominantly Muslim community continues to resist the efforts of a local congregation to place a fence around its church.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), on May 10, attempts by the Gangare branch of the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) to build a fence around its church to prevent further encroachment by the predominantly Muslim community onto church property were forcibly resisted by the community.

Although the church appealed for police intervention, this has not been forthcoming. Sources say a tense stand-off has now developed, raising fears of a possible renewal of religious violence.

CSW says that more than 2,000 people are estimated to have died in Jos when orchestrated inter-religious violence broke out in September 2001.

A media advisory states: “The State then experienced regular attacks by well-armed Islamic extremists on Christian settlements until May 2004, when a retaliatory attack on Muslims in Yelwa led to the imposition of six months of emergency rule in Plateau State by the federal government. Although the attacks have decreased since then, relations between the faith communities remain fragile.”

The CSW report says: “The ECWA church was constructed at a time when members of the two religious groups lived in mixed communities. Its congregation fled to safer areas after the religious riots of 2001, only returning to the area to take part in church services. However, in the congregations’ absence, local Muslims have increasingly begun to construct buildings on church-owned land.

“Over 50,000 people have died in religious violence in Nigeria since 1999 when 12 of the 36 states of Nigeria began to institute the Shari’ah penal code in defiance of the federal constitution. Christians now complain of being second class citizens in Shari’ah States.”

During a visit to northern and central Nigeria in April, a CSW team that included MP for Stroud, David Drew, uncovered evidence of a severe regime of religious repression, with Christians in Shari’ah states facing discrimination in education, employment, access to the media and in the provision of such essential services as boreholes and burial sites. Church property is arbitrarily seized and church buildings are routinely bulldozed, often on spurious grounds and without compensation.

CSW continues: “In addition, periodic outbreaks of religious violence are a regular feature of life for Christians in many of these states. Christians claim that a campaign of ‘religious cleansing’ is underway in some Shari’ah states, pointing out that the regular outbreaks of violence which target Christian homes, churches and businesses force them to move out of town centers and congregate in remote areas.”

CSW National Director Stuart Windsor said: “It is unfortunate that once again an issue has arisen that threatens peaceful coexistence in Plateau State . The authorities in the State must act swiftly to end this stand-off and to ensure that the ECWA church regains full use of its property. It is vital that this situation is not allowed to escalate into renewed violence. Following the Cartoon riots the Christian community has been in a state of fear. Now more than ever we need to pray and act in the pursuit of peace.”

CSW is a human rights organization which specializes in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs and promotes religious liberty for all.