>Muslim sect claims responsibility
>Pope praying for peace after blasts in Christmas message
>Latest violence comes after bloodshed killed over 130 Christians in recent weeks
By BosNewsLife Africa Service
ABUJA/VATICAN CITY (BosNewsLife)-- A Muslim sect has claimed responsibility for a powerful bomb blast that hit a Catholic church on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital Abuja during a Christmas service, killing at least 39 people.
In published remarks Boko Haram, or 'Western education is a sin', also said it carried out a separate church attack in the troubled city of Jos, the administrative capital of Nigeria's central Plateau state.
Boko Haram, which has been linked to nearly 500 killings this year alone, targeted initially the Christmas Mass in the St. Theresa Church, located in the suburb of Madalla, witnesses said.
Rescue officials collected at least 15 bodies, but residents warned the final death toll could be higher.
Another blast was later reported near the 'Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church', officials said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in that attack but a government spokesman, Pam Ayuba, told reporters that gunmen also opened fire on police guarding the area, killing one police officer. Two other locally made explosives were found in a nearby building and disarmed, he added.
Another church in the town of Gadaka in the northern state of Yobe was also targeted and residents reportedly said there were many wounded there.
Additionally, a suicide bomber killed four officials at the State Security Service in one of the other Christmas Day attacks in the northeastern town of Damaturu, police said in published remarks.
At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, prayed for peace following the blasts in his traditional Christmas message.
"Let us turn our gaze anew to the grotto of Bethlehem. The Child whom we contemplate is our salvation. He has brought to the world a universal message of reconciliation and peace," he told thousands of pilgrims in the Vatican.
The pope urged the world to aid those suffering from hunger in the Horn of Africa, and also called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and said he hoped this year's Arab revolts would aid the "common good."
Sunday's violence in Nigeria came a day after authorities said they had killed a dozen Boko Haram fighters.
Nigeria has struggled with a wave of violence centered in the country's north, where security forces are battling the radical Boko Haram, which wants to impose Sharia in Nigeria and opposes the spread of Christianity.
Authorities say violence in and around the cities of Maiduguri and Damaturu has killed at least 68 people over the past few days. Hundreds of others have died this year in bombings and shootings blamed on Boko Haram.
Attacks since last month in northern Nigeria have killed at least over 130 Christians, including missionaries, according to several estimates.
In Jos, thousands of people have died in recurring bouts of Muslim-Christian violence over the past decade. The city sits in Nigeria's Middle Belt, where the mostly Muslim north meets the mainly Christian south.
State governors, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) said earlier they offered prayers for "peace and unity" in Africa's most populous nation of 155 million people, roughly divided between Muslims and Christians.