Boko Haram, the violent Nigerian Islamist group, whose name means “Western civilization is forbidden,” struck again yesterday in pitiless bombing attacks against Christian worshippers as they celebrated Christmas.
One blast targeted congregants as they left Christmas-morning Mass at the St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, a suburb of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. The priest said that 35 bodies were recovered and many other people were wounded as the explosion ripped through the church, leaving a crater.
Smaller bombs were detonated near two other churches, including the popular Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in Jos, Plateau State, where a police guard was killed, and a church in the northeastern area of Gadaka, Yobe State, where no deaths were reported. An estimated total of 40 persons lost their lives in yesterday’s violence.
Coordinated violence targeting Christians has become a hallmark of Boko Haram as it seeks to impose strict sharia in areas that are already governed by varying degrees of sharia. Six churches were targeted and at least 150 people were killed in its bombing attacks over several days in November, and half a dozen bombs went off near churches and in a Jos market on Christmas Eve 2010, killing about 30.
Boko Haram has thus engaged in repeated, demonstrable, and violent intolerance toward Christianity, though it is far from the only source of religious violence in Nigeria on the tribal and village levels, Christians have also attacked Muslims or even the only source of Nigerian Muslim violence (for example, on Christmas Day 2009, the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the underwear bomber, attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight headed for Detroit on behalf of al-Qaeda.) Boko Haram’s targeting of Christians was noted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report for 2010.
But apparently this pattern had escaped the notice of the New York Times, which, in its otherwise detailed coverage of yesterday’s church violence, concluded that the bombings represented “a new, religion-tinged front” and “another dangerous shift in strategy.” At least the Times has finally seen the light.
In a reprise of the administration’s statement of condolences a year ago when a Syriac Catholic church in Iraq was bombed during Mass, the White House press office failed to make any observation whatsoever about the religious character of yesterday’s violence in Nigeria. Its statement identified neither the victims nor the perpetrators other than to say that they were Nigerian, and omitted any mention of the churches that were the main sites of the bombings. It attributed the violence simply to “terrorist acts,” stating in its entirety: “We condemn this senseless violence and tragic loss of life on Christmas Day. We offer our sincere condolences to the Nigerian people and especially those who lost family and loved ones. We have been in contact with Nigerian officials about what initially appear to be terrorist acts and pledge to assist them in bringing those responsible to justice.”
Nigeria is Africa’s most populated country, a regional power, a significant oil exporter, and an ally. It is critical for both humanitarian and strategic reasons that its society, which is almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians, not enter a period of escalating religious violence. However, it is unlikely that America will be able to contribute constructively if our foreign-policy establishment fails to recognize the goals of radical Sunni Islamist movements there.