Nigeria: Christians Ready to Battle Islamic Sect Boko Haram

In Nigeria, the blast from the Christmas Day church-bombing is reverberating around the country, its shock waves pounding an already poignant and deep-seeded religious conflict exemplified by rebel group Boko Haram.

The bombings, which killed 40 church-goers in several towns, struck a deep wound among Nigeria's 76 million Christians, and now church leadership is ready to take up arms against those they perceive to be enemies.

"The consensus is that the Christian community nationwide will be left with no other option than to respond appropriately if there are any further attacks on our members, churches and property," said Ayo Oritsejafor, the leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).

"I will not encourage Christians to revenge, but Christians should protect themselves... anyway you can. Why should anybody come and kill you in your house?" he asked.

"Protect your place of worship, protect your property; it is very important."

Oritsejafor harshly criticized the government for its ineffectiveness in fighting terrorist groups like Boko Haram. In recent months, President Goodluck Jonathan has turned to a combative strategy, sending out his police force and army troops to wage battle against Boko Haram in the streets. The tactic has led to arrests -- some significant -- but also public shoot-outs, questionable round-ups of suspects and has done little to stop violence in the short term.

"The Christian Community is fast losing confidence in [the] government’s ability to protect our rights to religious liberties and life," Oritsejafor stated.

"We don't want to witness this kind of thing again. We won't want to come to a Church to come and sympathize. We want to come and celebrate. So, we are totally against this [attack] and we are praying that government will wake up to their responsibility, build that political will and do what they have to do to stop this.

"Government should do more, intelligence agencies should do more but I also appeal to Nigerians, whatever your religion, if you protect mad people and think you are protecting your religion, you are doing a wrong thing," he added, referring to the idea that Boko Haram has widespread support in the north and that there are relatively few, if any, people denouncing militants to the authorities.

For the past year, Boko Haram, an Islamic insurgency who name translates roughly as "Western education is a sin," has been launching frequent bombings and attacks primarily in the Muslim-dominated north of Nigeria. The group has been around since 2009, but this year it concentrated its efforts and began an unprecedented wave of violence.

While its stated goal is to turn Nigeria into an Islamic nation and to impose sharia law, Boko Haram is also trying to destabilize the government, partly as a retribution against Jonathan, a Christian president whom Boko Haram believes stole the 2011 elections from a Muslim candidate.

In the past year, Boko Haram has impacted tens of thousands of people. While the group's traditional targets are police stations and government outposts in the north, Boko Haram has also attacked civilians, marketplaces and now religious targets across the country. In the past week, some 90,000 people were displaced from their homes in the city of Damaturu, the capital of the predominantly Muslim state of Yobe, as a result of recent Boko Haram attacks.

Additionally, the bombing of a U.N. building in Abuja in August and the church bombing on Sunday show that the group is getting more sophisticated and deadlier every day.

On Wednesday, Jonathan appealed to CAN, trying to assuage the rising religious tensions and to assure Christian leaders that the government is ready to meet the Boko Haram challenge head-on.

"At the security level, we are doing our best, we will restructure, we will re-adjust and make sure we get a team that will meet with the challenge we are facing today," Jonathan told the church organization.

Reiterating comments made by Nigeria's Islamic spiritual leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa'ad Abubakar, on Tuesday, Jonathan said that the attacks were not assaults on religion, but assaults on all Nigerians, regardless of faith.

"You see somebody throw an explosive into the market, he does not even care whether his father or mother is there... I encourage Nigerians to work with government because when we work together collectively, we will get over it. The terrorists are human beings, they are not spirits, they live with us, they dine with us. We know them, people know them.

"This terror attack is new to us but I can assure you that we are doing our best to make sure that we get over it," he added.

While leaders from all sides shout at one another, the bombing of an Arabic school in the southern Delta state on Wednesday might have been the first battleground in a much-feared "religious war." Six children and one adult were wounded when unidentified assailants threw a homemade bomb at the school.

"We are just beginning to live in peace, so we hope our Christian brothers can help us keep that peace," Mohammed Kabir, a Muslim citizen of Jos state, told Reuters. "Boko Haram is not all Islam."

Like Kabir and Sultan Abubakar, President Jonathan is beginning to realize that cooperation between religious groups could be a good way to stop the destruction in Nigeria. While his militarized assault on Boko Haram is not going to stop, Jonathan did "plead" for spiritual unity.

"I will plead with religious leaders, both Muslims and Christian leaders, to work together because terrorism is like a cancer to the body; it starts from somewhere and spread to all the organs of the body. It is like a flood and a big storm, it starts from somewhere and before you know, it goes to places you never expected.," Jonathan concluded.