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Muslim Extremists Set Church on Fire in Nigeria

3/29/07 Nigeria (Compass Direct News) – Two days after the killing of a Christian teacher in this town in northern Nigeria , Muslim extremists set fire to a church building of the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) in the Chanchanya section.

The Rev. Rukun Gaius, 50, chairman of the Gombe district of the ECWA, told Compass that a large number of Muslim extremists went to the church on Friday night (March 23) and set it on fire, gutting the sanctuary.

“The Muslims came to the church premises at about 11 p.m. to set the church on fire,” Rev. Gaius said. “People around the area and some of our members who saw the church burning rushed there put it out, but by then much damage had already been done to the building.”

The 500 members of the church must now “worship and conduct their church programs in the open,” Rev. Gaius said.

Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a teacher at Government Secondary School of Gandu in Gombe, was clubbed to death by Muslim students and outside extremists on March 21 after a student accused her of desecrating the Quran by touching a copy.

Rev. Gaius, who is also vice chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Gombe state chapter, said security reports to CAN show that Muslim extremists have marked out 15 more churches to be burned down.

“We have received security reports that 15 more churches have been earmarked to be burned, and that’s why you met us holding the emergency meeting at the Bishop’s Court [residence of the Anglican bishop of Gombe diocese],” he said.

The Gombe district of the ECWA has about 15,000 members and 57 local congregations.

The burning of the sanctuary of the ECWA church in Chanchanya, Rev. Gaius said, is not the first in the state. Arson and other attacks on Christians have characterized their lives for years, he said.

“Last year during protests against cartoons by a Danish newspaper, some of our churches were burned and Christians were attacked,” he said. “The ECWA church at Kagarawal was burned, another ECWA church at Nafada was also burned, this church has about 300 members; and Bishara Baptist Church in Gombe was also burned.”

In 2005, Rev. Gaius said, an ECWA church in Kagarawal was also set on fire.

“And in 2003,” he said, “a Christian student by the name of Yakubu Lanu was brutally killed at Government Science Secondary School in Gombe town, when Muslims said they were protesting the plan to build a chapel by Christian students of the school.”

Muslims protested the plan to build a chapel at the school even though there was a mosque for Muslim students, he said.

“Our religious rights are being violated daily,” Gaius said, and the government “has not made effort to protect us.” Rather, the Islamic government of the state encourages discrimination and crimes against Christians, he said.

The problems confronting Christians, he said, are related to the state having adopted sharia (Islamic law), which “encourages persecution of Christians.”

“There are no CRS [Christian Religious Studies] teachers in government schools, and yet there are Islamic Religious Studies teachers in all government schools in this state,” he said. “This is so even when there are Christian students in such government schools.”

The Islamic government discriminates against Christians even though the state population is half Christian, he said.

“You may find that where there are 10 Muslim commissioners appointed by the government, only about four may be appointed from the Christian community,” Rev. Gaius said. “And this is happening in a state with a population of about 2 million persons, with both Muslims and Christians constituting the population equally.”

Acquiring property to build sanctuaries is another pressing problem facing Christians in Gombe. “Getting land here for churches is a difficult thing,” he said. “As a result, lack of worship places have made Christians to be trekking long distance to attend worship services in the few available churches.”

Rev. Gaius said the government has adopted policies that deliberately frustrate Christian churches from acquiring properties.

“We have applied to buy land from the government, since land law places ownership of land on the government, but no such land has been sold to the churches, nor have approvals been given to us to even develop properties we have purchased from individuals,” Gaius said.

As members of ECWA churches are either workers or farmers, church programs have to be designed so that congregants attend in the evenings; this, in turn, requires that worship centers be close to their homes, he said.

“In Chanchanya, where our church has just been burned by Muslim fanatics, over the years we sought to buy another land to enable us to build a second church, but the government has not given us approval to build the church,” Rev. Gaius said. “In this same area, there are six mosques built for the Muslims.”

Moreover, he said, the land where the ECWA was to build the church has been taken over by the government and allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“Lack of land for the churches has affected all churches in Gombe state and is endemic in the towns of Gombe and Kwami,” he said.

Muslim converts to the Christian faith face intense persecution from family members and the larger Muslim community of the state, he added.

“We have 15 Muslim converts into the Christian faith. They were to be killed by other Muslims, and so we had to take them in,” he said. “They are currently in other safer towns in the country.”