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Yes, It Is Sectarian Violence

Nigeria’s Christians massacred again.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The Christians are hardly blameless. Accurate figures of what is called the Yelwa Massacre are impossible to find; Caroline Cox of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust has accused Islamic propagandists of systematic exaggeration: “A consistent pattern has emerged” in all these clashes, in which “Muslim militants” take all the corpses, Christian and Muslim alike, to mosques, “where they are photographed and released to the media, creating the impression that these are Muslim victims.” Nonetheless, there seems no doubt that Christians brutally attacked Muslims in the central Nigerian town of Yelwa in 2004.

But the far more usual pattern is one of Islamic attacks, with a consistent attempt by the Western media to find moral equivalence, or even to blame the Christians for provoking the attacks. Predictable “reprisal” and “revenge” for Christian violence, the Los Angeles Times sniffed after the March 7 murders.

This will not do. Over 300 Christian churches have been burned in Nigeria over the last four years. Jos has become a war zone, and the opening blow is almost always from the Islamic side. The September 2001 battle—1,000 dead—began when a Muslim mob attacked a Christian woman for crossing a mosque’s grounds during prayer. The November 2008 riot—400 dead—grew from a Muslim crowd’s violent protest of local election results. And the January 2010 clash—200 dead—started, according to the state police commissioner, when Muslims set a Catholic church on fire. 

The political instability of Nigeria remains an open threat to the communities in the central states. The vice president, a Christian named Goodluck Jonathan, was appointed acting president by the legislature on February 9, after two and half months of absence by the Muslim president, Umaru Yar’Adua, who was receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Yar’Adua reportedly returned to Nigeria on February 24. No one other than his wife has claimed to have seen him, and rumors abound that he is in a coma. But his alleged presence in the country clouds the political situation, and Jonathan’s response came on March 17, when he dismissed the entire 42-member cabinet Yar’Adua had assembled—an act for which it is not clear he has constitutional authority.

Then, the next day, Jonathan ordered home the Nigerian ambassador to Libya, after Muammar Qaddafi called for dividing Nigeria into two countries, Muslim and Christian, in order to “stop bloodshed and burning of places of worship.” That’s not the nuttiest idea the Libyan leader has ever suggested, but it resonated badly among Nigerians who remember the civil war that followed the secession of Biafra in the late 1960s. It would require Nigeria’s Christians, moreover, to surrender to the ungentle power of permanent Muslim authority their small but growing communities in the north. And why should they agree to that? 

This political confusion could easily issue in a military coup and subsequent civil war—which, given the way all conflict in Nigeria quickly translates into religious battle, would mean yet more sectarian violence. In the face of that threat, who could want a distribution of weapons to ethnic and religious communities? But when government fails, people must assume the functions of government. 

If the Nigerian authorities are so frozen that they cannot safeguard their citizens—if the villages are to suffer, again and again, all the usual horrors—then there will be only two things for the churches, both in Nigeria and abroad, to do: Arm the Christian communities and damn those whose failures made it necessary.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the editor of First Things.

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