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Religious Tensions Linger On Eve of Nigerian Vote

Christian, Muslim leaders seek balance from new civil government

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 1992


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.

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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.

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.