Nigeria to scrap religious pilgrimage subsidies

Abuja, Nigeria - Nigeria will scrap millions of dollars in subsidies for Christians and Muslims to go on pilgrimage from next year in an effort to curb spending, a minister said on Wednesday.

Nigeria is a secular nation under the constitution, but the government nevertheless pays about 25 percent of the cost for over 100,000 Muslim and Christian pilgrims to travel to their holy sites every year.

It also provides free pilgrimages for thousands of government officials and politicians.

"The council approved the withdrawal of all subsidies to all pilgrimages effective from 2008 because the issue of subsidies as it pertains to travel is becoming a great issue of concern," said Information and Communications Minister John Odey.

He was speaking to the press after the first cabinet meeting of the two-month-old government of President Umaru Yar'Adua.

Africa's most populous country is divided roughly equally between Muslims and Christians.

The government had previously resisted calls from civil society groups to do away with the subsidy after scathing criticism from the country's top religious leaders.

Nigeria is constitutionally a secular nation, but both the federal and state governments get involved in religious matters. In the 12 predominantly Muslim states that adopted Sharia law in 2000, state governments have funded the construction of mosques. In the largely Christian south, states often make donations to churches.