Religious Tensions Linger On Eve of Nigerian Vote

Christian, Muslim leaders seek balance from new civil government

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AT a Roman Catholic church a choir of men and women sits on wooden benches and practices hymns. Outside a nearby mosque, plastic, rubber, and leather shoes are piled in a jumble by the door, as barefoot men kneel and bow to the floor inside in prayer.

Churches and mosques rise in close proximity throughout this northern Nigerian city, but age-old tensions between Christians and Muslims cut deep.

Hundreds of people - some say several thousand - died here in May as followers of the two faiths battled each other for several days. People were dragged from cars; houses were burned. Friends of one faith turned on friends of the other.

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Such religious violence, while not frequent, is so devastating when it occurs that avoiding it will be a key challenge for Nigeria's incoming civilian government, according to both Muslims and Christian leaders.

Seven years after seizing power, military head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who is Muslim, promises to step down in January following presidential elections in December. Presidential primaries begin Saturday.

"The new leaders must sit down and think through very hard what would forestall another massacre," says Alhajia Issa Kaita, a respected Muslim leader, sitting on the front porch of his home in Kaduna. "My advice for the new team is to do their best to forget the past."

"The north is such a huge part of the country, this makes [Christian-Muslim conflict] a national issue," says Abdullahi Mahdi, director of the Center for Research and Historic Documentation at the Ahmmadu Bello University. Appointments and funds

The task of the new government, Nigerian religious leaders say, will be to balance political and military appointments between Christians and Muslims. A coup attempt against President Babangida in early 1990 was partly a result of Christian perceptions that Islamic influence in government was growing.

The new civilian leaders also work to distribute public funds evenly between the northern, mostly Muslim region, and the southern, Christian-dominated region, the religious leaders say.

Kaduna is one of many places across the continent where the historic southward sweep of Islam out of the Middle East met the northward expansion of Christianity from within Africa. The meeting ground is an active zone of religious competition, and at times, violence.

In southern Sudan, for example, at almost the same longitude as Kaduna, the northern, Muslim-dominated government is fighting Christian and animist rebels who oppose the state imposition of Islamic law.

Nigeria so far has avoided outright war over religion. But the May riots have polarized people of both faiths, says the Rev. David Mato of the Catholic Church of Kaduna. As a result, he says, the presidential election will be "a Christian-Muslim battle," assuming the two candidates are of those two faiths.

Muslim publisher Alhaji Hassan Sani Kontagora agrees the atmosphere remains volatile. Roots of the violence

Government critics, including Mr. Kontagora, blame the military for quickening religious and ethnic tensions by failing to improve the economy.

Dr. Mahdi charges that the military also has lacked the spirit of compromise that enabled past civilian regimes to keep religious tensions from exploding.

The fighting here began after bodies from a Christian-Muslim clash two days earlier in the nearby village of Zangon-Kataf were brought by the Army to Kaduna. The village clash, according to most accounts, stemmed from a dispute over the location of a new local market.

But behind that lay years of growing animosity between the mostly Muslim, Hausa-speaking traders in the village, and the Christian, non-Hausa farmers in the surrounding areas.

Father Mato says the plan for the new market would have provided space for Christian traders to join the mostly Muslim traders. He claims Muslims had been planning to attack the Christians.

If that were true, it may have been a preemptive measure. Muslim leader Kaita claims the Christians had been stockpiling weapons to attack the Muslims.

Muslim survivors of the Zangon-Kataf clash say fighting broke out when Christians attacked them.

"They surrounded the village," says one young Muslim man, now taking refuge with several hundred other Muslim survivors in a secondary school here.

Hauwa Adamu, a Muslim mother clutching her two children, pauses in an open courtyard of the school. Wearing a light blue shawl over her shoulders, she says: "I lost my husband. He was a driver." Lingering distrusts

Christians express similar concerns for their safety. Emmanuel Andrew Tabat, who used to sell sodas on the street but now is too afraid to return home, says Muslims came looking for him to attack him. They set fire to his room, burning his school certificates and clothes.

"Nothing was saved," he says. "They were all Hausa," he says, sitting on a mattress in an otherwise bare room at a hospital rehabilitation center, where several hundred Christians left homeless by the Kaduna attacks are staying. "Some of them were friends," he says.

Most of the Christian-Muslim clashes of recent years have occurred in north-central Nigeria.

In 1987, violence broke out between the two faiths in Kanfanchan, south of Kaduna, then spread to Zaria. It apparently began after Muslim students took offense to remarks given at a college in Kanfanchan that they took to be anti-Islam. Churches and mosques were burned, and at least 19 people were killed.

Despite the creation of a National Advisory Council for Religious Affairs, made up of both Christians and Muslims, later that year, sporadic outbreaks continued into 1988.

In 1990, Christians and Muslims clashed in the city of Bauchi in a dispute over the use of a local slaughterhouse and in Zaria over plans for a Christian revival.

As the election gets under way this weekend, Yakubu J. Billat, a Christian leader here, sees no long-term solution to religious violence in Nigeria other than dividing the country into two.

"Muslims on one side and Christians and pagans on the other. [These] relationships can never be cordial," he claims.

Mr. Billat lost both his wife and two children in the May violence.

"At least let us have a Christian head of state for a change," Father Mato says. "We don't seem to have any protection" from the violence.

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