Christians flee homes as fear grows after Nigerian blasts
HUNDREDS of residents in two restive northern Nigerian cities have fled their homes in fear of more violence after 40 people were killed in a series of Christmas Day bomb attacks on Christian churches.
Groups gathered yesterday at bus and taxi stations to leave Damaturu, which was struck by two blasts in which three people died. The city has been at the centre of clashes between Islamists and authorities in recent days.
In Potiskum, residents fled after 30 Christian-owned shops and the home of a Christian leader were set on fire late on Sunday.
"I can't stay here any longer," a 31-year-old resident of Potiskum said. "It's peaceful today, but it's no guarantee that in the next hours it will remain the same. People have been killed and it could be me next."
The Islamist group Boko Haram, which has ties to al-Qa'ida and aims to impose Islamic law in Nigeria, claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day bomb attacks in the cities of Madalla, Jos and Damaturu.
It is the second Christmas in a row that it has targeted churches, leading to fears that it could set off a new round of sectarian clashes.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with 167 million people, is 50.4pc Muslim and 48.2pc Christian.
"The attack on churches nationalises the crisis," said Shehu Sani, a rights activist based in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north.
"It will bring hitherto neutral people into the crisis. Christians may want to take revenge on Muslims and this is dangerous for the country."
Richard Oguche, a police spokesman, confirmed that the explosion at St Theresa's Roman Catholic Church in Madalla -- in which at least 35 people died in the bloodiest of the attacks -- was caused by a car bomb.
Bloodstains could still be seen outside the church yesterday as a special Mass was held in memory of the victims. "I have never cried before," Father Isaac Achi told the congregation of several hundred, which included bishops and priests from the region as well as the Vatican's representative to Nigeria. "Yesterday I cried. This morning I cried. But with all of you around today, I will not cry again. Seeing you coming to say this Mass, I'm telling you, I will not cry again."
John Onaiyekan, the Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria's capital, called for an end to the escalating violence.
"It's a national tragedy," he said. "We are all unsecured. It's not only Catholic. Today it's us. Tomorrow we don't know who it will be."
He urged Islamic leaders to take an active role in seeking to end the violence. "Whether we like it or not, this particular crime has been claimed by Boko Haram, who claimed that they are Muslims," he said.
"I expect my colleagues in the Islamic community not to just sit back.
"I don't even consider them (Boko Haram) Muslim fanatics since the Islamic community has told us they are not. Whatever they are, they are criminals. They are killing innocent people," he added.
The Pope, speaking to the crowds in St Peter's Square, condemned the attacks as an "absurd gesture" and prayed that "the hands of the violent be stopped".
Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria's Christian president, said: "We are paying condolence to the families and victims of this act. We must not condone this irresponsible and dastardly act or allow the perpetrators to continue."
But his government faced accusations yesterday that it was too slow to respond to the bombings. A spokesman for the country's national emergency management agency admitted there were not enough vehicles to cope with the victims of the Madalla bomb.
"Some of the dead bodies were just lying on the ground because agencies were overstretched," Yushau Shuaib said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)