Nigerian state adopts Shariah law

KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) -- Kaduna State began implementing Islamic holy law, or Shariah, in local courts Friday as police in armored cars patrolled the streets of the state capital to prevent fighting between Muslims and Christians that killed at least 2,000 people last year when the plan was proposed.

Authorities did not hold a ceremony to mark Shariah's implementation Friday, saying they wanted to avoid inflaming religious passions.

Police patrolled streets of the state capital, also called Kaduna, to enforce a ban on public protests and celebrations. Groups of young Christians and Muslims gathered to guard churches and mosques, but no violence was reported.

Kaduna government spokesman Makhtar Zubairu Sirajo said that beginning Friday, lower "area courts" dealing with civil and some criminal cases were being replaced with Shariah courts with powers to impose strict Islamic punishments -- including flogging and amputating hands.

The courts only had jurisdiction over Muslims, Sirajo said. As a concession to Christians and animists who make up a large minority in Kaduna state, state authorities were also creating "customary courts" applying traditional law to settle the squabbles and crimes of non-Muslims, Sirajo said.

Where a crime involved both Christians and Muslims, a secular court would be used to decide the case, the spokesman added.

"What we are bringing to Kaduna is a compromise solution that no reasonable person can reject," Sirajo said.

Sirajo was unable to say whether either the Shariah or customary courts had begun trying cases on Friday. An area court visited by journalists was closed.

Kaduna city residents have strong memories of rioting in February 2000, when Shariah was first proposed, and fears of more violence have prevented many from repairing buildings -- including churches and mosques -- that were destroyed. Last year's fighting left more than 2,000 dead by some estimates, and hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee their homes.

Interreligious fighting has subsequently spread to several of the dozen other states where Shariah has also been imposed.

Fundamentalist Muslims uphold Shariah as a pathway to Muslim piety and justice; opponents accuse Shariah's backers of using it to achieve short-term political gains and widen Nigeria's existing religious and ethnic divisions.

Nigeria periodically experiences outbreaks of fighting along ethnic and religious lines. Africa's most populous nation, with 120 million people from 250 ethnic groups, is roughly divided between a mainly Christian south and an overwhelmingly Muslim north.

On Friday, some Christians were reportedly packing their bags and moving out of predominantly Muslim areas of the city.

"We will not start any violence, but we will finish it if we have to," said Emeka Ume Oke, who was among several young men standing guard at the steel-gated compound of St. Francis Catholic Church, the city's largest Christian worship place.

Father Habila Daboh, a priest at St. Joseph's, said many in his church feared Muslims may try to impose Islamic laws -- such as headscarfs for women and a ban on alcohol -- on them, despite the insistence to the contrary by the state government.

"The level of ignorance is high among both Muslims and Christians," said Daboh. "Nobody can predict what this Shariah will really mean for us."

Sheikh Abdul Hamed Balele Wali, the imam, or holy man, at Kaduna's main mosque, said Muslims "do not expect any trouble." He said Muslim leaders were meeting regularly with their Christian counterparts.

"Everybody is praying for peace. Any Muslim who plans anything evil against Christians is not a good Muslim. Peace is in the Quran," Wali said.

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All rights reserved