By Michelle Bauman
A U.S. advocate for international religious freedom says an attack on a Catholic church in Nigeria shows how religious tension should be acknowledged as the cause of recent violence in the country.
Nina Shea, who directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., predicted that violence in Nigeria between Muslim extremists and local Christians will “continue and escalate” unless something is done to prevent it.
Shea told CNA on March 13 that at the root of the problem is the fact that neither the Nigerian nor the U.S. governments are “willing to call this a religious conflict.”
The Associated Press reported at least 10 deaths in violence surrounding a suicide car bomb attack at St. Finbar’s Catholic Church in the middle of Mass on March 11.
The bombing took place in the city of Jos – an area plagued with conflict over the last decade – which then led to more violence, as young people retaliated by burning down homes later in the day, witnesses said.
Although no group immediately claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, the city has been the target of violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, a radical Islamic sect that has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings leading to dozens of Christian fatalities and injuries in recent months alone.
Shea observed that Nigeria is split almost evenly between followers of Islam and Christianity, and the government generally alternates between Christian and Muslim leadership.
Under leaders of either religion, Nigerian authorities have been “reluctant” to respond to such attacks, she said, explaining that they prefer to ignore such problems rather than demanding justice and accountability from those who perpetrate acts of violence.
The U.S. government has also “consistently declined to call this a primarily sectarian conflict,” despite the fact that Boko Haram has clearly-stated sectarian goals, including the forcible conversion of others to Islam, she added.
“This is a problem,” she said, because such “flawed analysis” will not lead to policies that respond properly to the situation.
Shea said that it is unclear whether this oversight is due to a “secular blind spot” or fear of what may happen if the violence is identified for what it truly is.
But while government officials ignore the central problem, Christians of all denominations are continuing to die for their faith, she said.
In her work as a U.S. commissioner on international religious freedom, Shea said that she recently met with an Anglican bishop from Nigeria, who told her that Christians in the region are “terrified.”
However the country still has a “rapidly growing Christian church” and problems between religions will not disappear.
While the U.S. has offered some help, Shea called the efforts inadequate for a country that is weighed down by corruption and a dysfunctional justice system.
Nigeria’s fate is important, she said, because the country is a regional leader. As the most populous country in Africa, a shift away from peace and stability could lead other nations in the same direction.
Shea called on the United States to exercise leadership in addressing religious violence in Nigeria, beginning by accurately identifying the root of the problem as the sectarian conflict that it is.
If this does not happen, Shea fears that the situation in Nigeria may “spiral out of control,” resulting in “catastrophic” consequences for the whole region.