Nigerian Christian worship subdued by church bombs

Sun Jun 24, 2012 3:22pm BST

* Many stay away from church fearing bombs

* More than 100 killed last week in bombs and retaliation

* Security experts not anticipating all-out conflict

By Augustine Madu and Joe Brock

KANO/ABUJA, June 24 (Reuters) - Anthonia Eke is trusting God to end an Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria but won't be praying in church any more, after a string of bombs at Sunday services.

Some churches in northern Nigeria, usually packed with worshippers, were almost empty on Sunday morning and many people stayed away in other parts of the country after a week of violence in religiously-mixed Kaduna state.

At least 92 people were killed in the tit-for-tat attacks between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna last week, sparked by suicide bombings at three churches last Sunday that killed 19 people and were blamed on Islamist sect Boko Haram.

"We are still traumatised over the attacks and have no intention to attend church service until total peace and normalcy are restored," Eke told Reuters in Kano, Nigeria's second-largest city after Lagos.

"God understands our situation here so we have decided to pray at home. Only he can end this pain."

There were fewer than usual at churches in the capital Abuja, which sits in the centre of the country where the largely Muslim north and mostly Christian south meet.

But hundreds still queued to pass through military checkpoints outside the largest churches in Abuja, and hundreds of thousands of worshippers around the country were determined to attend regardless of the risks.

"They will always tell you that they would prefer to die in the house of God than dying in nightclubs or dying in the streets," said Franklin Okoye, president of a church society in Abuja.

Religion plays a key role for almost everyone in Africa's most populous nation, where "Thank God" and "Inshallah" are as common greetings as "hello" or "how are you?"

The escalating violence has raised fears of wider sectarian conflict in Africa's top oil producer, which is reeling from months of attacks on government buildings and churches by followers of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram admit responsibility for some of the attacks but deny others, and security sources and many Nigerians believe their name is used as a cover for other groups aiming to stoke religious tensions.

"There seems to be some political undertones because for some time now people have been attacking the churches perhaps with a view to getting a reaction from the Christendom so that there will be a war in the country," said John Abuere, a parishioner in Abuja.

Similar violence in the past has usually failed to spark sustained conflict in a nation whose Muslims and Christians mostly co-exist peacefully, despite periodic flare-ups of sectarian violence since independence from Britain in 1960.

"We do not preach gospel of retaliation, we preach peace ... security is everybody's concern whether you are in your house or you are in the market or in the church or you are in the Mosque," said Father John Sixtus Okonkwo, priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Abuja.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the southern oil-producing region, has been criticised for not stemming the flow of violence in the north, a region his opponents say he is out of touch with.

Jonathan traveled to Brazil for a sustainability summit at the height of the violence in Kaduna last week, drawing anger from many Nigerians.

He sacked his defence minister and national security adviser on Friday, a move foreign diplomats said was long overdue. (Additional reporting by Abraham Achirga in Abuja; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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