After Nigeria's Church Bombings: The Advent of Christian-Muslim Conflict?

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Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

A security barrier marks the scene of a car-bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, Suleja, just outside the Nigerian capital of Abuja, on Dec. 25, 2011.

On the blood-splattered front walls of the blasted church, using wood burned into charcoal from the flames of the explosion, somebody scrawled two messages: "Revolution now" and "No more peace in the country." In the aftermath of the attack by Islamist militants against a Christian sanctuary in Abuja and four other churches in Nigeria, those are the symptoms of a sectarian backlash that Nigerian authorities are most alarmed about.

At least 32 people were killed as they poured out of the packed Christmas-morning Mass in St. Theresa Catholic Church near Abuja, the capital, Interior Minister Abba Moro told TIME. Four other bombs elsewhere in the country took at least three lives. Boko Haram, a group whose aim is to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Shari'a on Africa's most populous country, took credit for the attacks. One-third of Nigerian states already live under Shari'a.

Authorities are now battling to keep a lid on the bubbling threat of a sectarian civil conflict that would pitch one half of Nigeria's population of 155 million against the other. "The fact that Christian facilities were bombed was intended primarily to provoke Christians into attacking Muslims," Moro told TIME. "We have appealed to our Christian brothers for them not to do so." But two days after the bombing, the area around St. Theresa remained tense as angry young men loitered just beyond military cars patrolling the area. "If the government cannot protect us, we will take revenge by ourselves," said Josiah Agbo, 18, whose mother was killed in the blast. He left only after a priest from St. Theresa took to the streets urging Christians not to attack Muslims. In a country where religious leaders wield enormous power, Muslim counterparts in the powerful Sokoto and Kano caliphates — the country's historic Islamic communities — denounced the bombings.

"The people lying in hospitals after the Christmas bombs were ... Muslim and Christian," Moro said. "Boko Haram aren't aliens from another planet. People know who they are. We want to draw members of the public into sharing that information to prevent future attacks." He said two arrests in connection with the Christmas bombings were made because of just such collaboration.

But there have been almost 500 deaths in near daily bomb blasts and shoot-outs in the predominantly Muslim northeast in 2011 alone. And Boko Haram (a name that means "non-Islamic education is sacrilege" in the northern Hausa language) at times seems perilously close to plunging the country into chaos. "The Islamic militants want Nigeria to be an Islamic republic like Iran, but we may end up becoming a Sudan or Somalia if the violence continues at this pace and scale," says activist Shehu Sani, who heads the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria and led attempts to mediate a cease-fire with the group. "It all depends on the ability of the leadership to handle the crisis."

A diplomat who requested anonymity told TIME that Boko Haram has splintered into different factions that are prepared to use varying degrees of force. A December report by the U.S. Congress said Boko Haram has morphed from homegrown criminals into worldly terrorists with the capability of forging international links. Boko Haram spokespeople have claimed that its members have traveled as far east as Somalia, where al-Shabab militants have shared financing and techniques. In December, a serving Senator from Boko Haram's home of Borno State was charged with financing the organization. He denied the charges and has been released on bail.

Countries such as the U.S., France and the U.K. are stepping up assistance to Nigeria in areas like explosives forensics and intelligence gathering, a Nigerian military spokesperson says. "How does one keep one step ahead of not just one but all these groups? That is what we in Nigeria, just like in developed nations, need to work out," the spokesperson adds.

"Some people see Boko Haram as the right irritant to sting the government into action over poverty and corruption," says Sani, the activist. For some, however, the response from Nigeria's ruling elite has often seemed lackluster. "Still not a single [senior] government has visited," Agbo said at St. Theresa. "It's always the same. They are too busy with themselves to bother with us." Some of the Boko Haram mayhem can be traced back to the government. Its attempts to crush the group in 2009 led to the killing of Boko Haram's then leader and 900 other deaths in sectarian riots. The move may have further radicalized the organization, pushing its leadership underground and into neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the Muslim elite is grumbling over the ascendancy of President Goodluck Jonathan — a southern Christian. His succession to the office violated an unwritten agreement that the highest office should rotate between north and south every two terms. A former university lecturer, Jonathan was dubbed the Accidental President by the local press after he succeeded Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim, who died in 2010 midway through his first term. The following year, Jonathan ran successfully for office.