The head of Nigeria’s Christians said on Saturday the killing of dozens of faithful in attacks blamed on Islamists suggested “ethnic and religious cleansing” reminiscent of the start of the 1960s civil war.
Christians would “do whatever it takes” to defend themselves, Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said after a meeting of church leaders.
More than 30 worshipers have been shot dead in northeast Nigeria since Wednesday, many while praying in churches, after the expiration of an ultimatum by an Islamist sect for Christians to leave the country’s mainly Muslim north.
Oritsejafor said an emergency meeting of church heads concluded “that the pattern of these killings does suggest to us a systematic ethnic and religious cleansing.”
“We are reminded by the occurrences of these killings of the genesis of the civil war that took place here in Nigeria,” he added, reading from a statement prepared after the meeting in the capital, Abuja.
That conflict claimed more than 1 million lives in the late 1960s.
Nigeria’s 160 million people are roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, but followers of both faiths have co-existed for years in the different regions.
However, the escalating attacks have raised fears of reprisals.
Oritsejafor said the Christian leaders had resolved to “work out means to defend ourselves against these senseless killings.”
“We have the legitimate right to defend ourselves and ... we will do whatever it takes,” he added, without elaborating.
Officials in Adamawa state, the scene of most of Friday’s bloodshed, placed the territory under a 24-hour curfew on Saturday and deployed security forces in a bid to halt the carnage.
More than 30 Christians were gunned down in three separate attacks attributed to the Islamist sect Boko Haram in Adamawa state and neighboring Gombe state, which were not covered by the president’s state of emergency.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan a week ago placed parts of northeast Nigeria under emergency rule in a bid to halt escalating violence after 49 people were killed on Christmas Day, most of them at a Catholic church.
However, in fresh attacks over the last few days, Boko Haram has targeted more Christians and a regional police headquarters.