Sat, Sep 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Religious riots erupt in Nigeria

ZEALOTS Muslim rioters burned churches, homes and businesses after a Christian woman reportedly retaliated against a colleague's derogatory remarks about Jesus


Hundreds of Christians sought refuge at police headquarters in a predominantly Muslim Nigerian town on Thursday after rioters protesting alleged blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed attacked and burned churches, Christian homes and businesses, residents and police said.

Violence broke out in Dutse, the capital of northern Jigawa state, on Wednesday after thousands of Muslim youth poured out on the streets to protest alleged blasphemy by a Christian woman, resident Emeka Nworah said.

It was unclear what the offensive statement was that sparked the rioting. Some said it was a market dispute, while others said she made a statement against Mohammed days earlier.

Several churches, homes and businesses belonging to the city's minority Christians were set ablaze and destroyed in the rampage. Police confirmed the violence.

"The disturbances are unfortunate but the situation is now under control," senior police official Kieran Dudari told reporters.

No deaths were reported but residents said many people were injured. Six churches were burnt, along with an unspecified number of homes and shops, police said.

"Eleven churches and so many houses and shops were burned. The house of the Anglican bishop was also ransacked," police spokesman Haz Iwendi said, adding that hundreds of Christians fled their homes to military and police barracks fearing further attacks.

"There is now a night curfew in the town and police units from [neighboring] Kano and Katsina states have been sent there to beef up security," Iwendi said.

Nworah was among Dutse residents who escaped to Kano in search of transportation to their home states in the mainly Christian south.

More than 1,000 people, mainly Christians, were still camped in the open field at state police headquarters in Dutse on Thursday, too scared to go back to their homes, witnesses and police said.

Nigeria 's 130 million people are roughly split between a south dominated by Christians and a north mainly populated by Muslims, with sectarian violence breaking out often.

Thousands of Nigerians have died in sectarian strife since 2000, when mostly Muslim northern states began implementing Islamic Shariah law.

Earlier this year, more than 120 people were killed in attacks across the country sparked by Muslim protests over cartoons published in Europe caricaturing Prophet Mohammed.

There are sizeable religious minorities in all areas of the country.

There is often more to the violence, however, than religious differences. Sometimes politicians instigate it for their own ends, and in some cases a small dispute quickly escalates as thugs seize the opportunity to go on a looting spree.

Any deaths in religious fighting usually spark tit-for-tat killings in different parts of the country.

Nigerians are due to elect their president, state governors and lawmakers in landmark polls next April and many fear an increase in religious fighting as tensions rise before the elections.

Joseph Hayab, secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for the northwest, agreed that an argument over Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed sparked the Dutse riot.

"Her comment was in retaliation to uncomplimentary remarks made by her colleague about Jesus," Hayab said.

He said the rioters were angry about the release of the woman, who was briefly detained by police.

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