A suspected suicide bomber struck a Catholic church during mass in Jos, central Nigeria, on Sunday, killing at least three people and sparking reprisal attacks that left several others dead.
The bomber detonated his explosives at St Finbar’s Catholic Church in Jos, at 10am, after being confronted by security guards. Christian youths immediately began setting up roadblocks in the city, which has a long history of ethnic and religious violence fuelled by local politics.
“The situation is bad,” Sati Dakwat, health commissioner for Jos, told Reuters. “Several were killed in the reprisal attacks, more than 10.”
The blast came two weeks after another Sunday suicide attack at a church in Jos killed three people. The Islamist group Boko Haram, which wants harsher sharia law in northern Nigeria, claimed responsibility for the earlier attack.
The insurgents’ main targets are usually security officials, and most victims are Muslims. But increasingly regular attacks on Christians, including the bombing of a church near the capital Abuja on Christmas day, that killed 37 people, have led to fears that Boko Haram is trying to ignite a sectarian war.
Jos is an especially sensitive target, given its location in Nigeria’s “middle belt”, which separates the mostly Muslim north from the mainly Christian south. Thousands of people have died during clashes in the city over the past decade – more than 1,000 in 2010 alone.
Much of the violence stemmed from tensions between the Berom ethnic group, who are Christians and hold most top posts in the local government, and the Hausa and Fulani, from the north, who are regarded as migrants despite having lived there for decades, and who are perceived as doing better economically.
Joseph Sangosanya, a civil society activist who heads the Christian Foundation for Social Justice and Equity, in Jos, said he believed the attacks on the churches were tied to upcoming local elections in the state – even if Boko Haram was involved.
“There a political dimension to this, even more than a religious dimension,” he said, in a telephone interview.
If true, this would confirm the views of analysts who say Boko Haram has close links to some politicians in northern Nigeria. The insurgents were also accused of holding hostage a British man and his Italian colleague who were killed during a raid by British special forces in Nigeria last week, but have strongly denied involvement in the hostage-taking.
Concern over the church attacks crosses religious lines in Jos. “They [the suicide attacks] are new to us, and 100 per cent of the victims are innocent,” said Sanusi Mato, a Muslim businessman and human rights activist in the city. “Those people with grievances need to sit down and talk to the authorities.”