By BosNewsLife Africa Service
JOS, NIGERIA (BosNewsLife)-- A tense calm returned to the central Nigerian city of Jos Tuesday December 2, amid fresh allegations that suspected Muslim militants used a dispute over local elections to attack churches, leaving hundreds dead and thousands fleeing their homes, this weekend.
Fighting began Friday, November 28, after the mostly Christian-backed governing party, the People's Democratic Party, was declared to have won the state elections in Plateau State, of which Jos is the capital. The result was challenged by the opposition All Nigeria People's Party, a predominantly Muslim party.
Local Christians blamed suspected Muslim militants for the violence, saying instead of targeting political institutions, rioters armed with guns, spears, machetes and other weapons immediately attacked churches, including the Church of Christ in Nigeria in Jos' Sarkin Mangu area, killing its pastor.
Christian businesses and homes were also destroyed, forcing up to 10,000 people to flee, said Barnabas Fund, a group investigating the situation of Christians in especially Muslim areas.
Barnabas Fund's International Director Patrick Sookhdeo told BosNewsLife in a statement that “The apparently pre-planned anti-Christian violence" was not a single incident, but "part of a pattern of repeated rioting in Nigeria, usually started by Muslims against Christians." However he admitted that local Christians were to blame as well, saying "It is tragic when Christians respond with violence, as seems to have happened this time."
The state government has said about 200 people died in the clashes, though other sources have given a toll twice the official figure. About 2,000 angry youths stormed a central mosque in Jos on Monday, December 1, calling for the resignation of state governor Jonah Jang. It was not immediately clear how many Christians were among the protesters.
In published remarks the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi, described the crisis as "a wake up call to state and federal authorities to ensure that truth is told, truth is maintained and justice is done." He said Christians have often been made "a convenient scapegoat and target for those with grievances about events both at home and abroad."
Security has been beefed up in Jos and three major cities in the north -- for fear that violence could spread, news reports said. Authorities also announced the arrest Tuesday, December 2, of 16 "mercenaries" from neighbouring Niger for their alleged involvement in the clashes.
Nuhu Gagara, commissioner of information in the central Plateau state, accused those arrested of being on a cross-border combat mission and that weapons had been found in their possession, Agency France-Presse (AFP) reported. But the accusation was promptly rejected by Niger, with the country's ambassador to Abuja saying those detained were merely water vendors.
Nigerien Ambassador to Nigeria Isa Ibrahim said those arrested had been living in Jos "for several years as water vendors." He added that some 50 Niger nationals had been killed in the violence and condemned any statement that "can fuel a dying fire".
Bishop Kwashi seemed to agree but made clear that especially Christians and churches in northern Nigeria need "urgent national and international protection." He said Christians "have suffered this violence for over 20 years and it is now becoming unbearable”.
Religious violence has cost the lives of over 50,000 people since 1999, when one-third of Nigeria’s 36 states instituted the Islamic penal code making Shari’ah (Islamic) law the highest legal authority, creating a de facto state religion, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious rights group.
Nigeria can be roughly divided into the predominantly Muslim north, the central or Middle Belt area where Christians and Muslims are more or less evenly balanced, and a mainly Christian south. Each region also contains sizable minority of people who follow traditional African beliefs. (With reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos).