Religious friction fuels Nigerian conflict, IRLA tells State Department

Religious minorities in Nigeria brace for continued bloodshed as advocates urge greater international action

Northern Nigeria has been the epicenter of a series of violent attacks against religious minorities by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

March 8, 2012 ... The International Religious Liberty Association has joined with scholars, religious leaders, human rights advocates to express its “deep concern about the continuing religiously motivated violence in Nigeria.” In a letter, delivered last week to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the group calls attention to the “religious themes and rhetoric” that have helped fuel violence in the country—including a series of Christmas Day attacks on Christian worshippers last year that left at least 42 people dead.

So far, the State Department has emphasized the economic and tribal tensions in northern Nigeria as the main factors spurring violence. “But the picture is more complex than that,” says Attorney Dwayne Leslie, deputy secretary general for the IRLA. “As the State Department conducts its diplomatic work in Nigeria, it’s vital that it acknowledges the deep roots of religious differences in the region and the role these are playing in expanding the scope and intensity of the conflict.”

The letter points out that in 2011 more than 500 deaths were attributed to Boko Haram, the fundamentalist extremist group that has called for the imposition of Islamic Sharia law in Nigeria. The group’s actions have intensified—in January this year alone, terrorism by Boko Haram has killed some 250 people.

As the attacks continue and as many flee the region, the IRLA is asking the US State Department to press the government of Nigeria to do more to secure the safety of religious minorities and to implement interfaith peace and reconciliation initiatives. “The first step, though, must be for the State Department to recognize the significant religious tensions fueling this tragic situation,” says Mr. Leslie.

Among more than 20 signatories to the letter were the American Islamic Congress, the Baptist World Alliance, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and the North American Religious Liberty Association. [Bettina Krause/IRLA]