Nigeria's Christians fear persecution from Boko Haram rampage

Lagos (AFP) - Christians in northeast Nigeria are paying a heavy price at the hands of Boko Haram, even if they are not being targeted specifically by the militants in their bloody quest for an Islamic state.

Several towns in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa have been attacked in recent weeks, sending thousands of residents fleeing and raising concerns about the speed of the Islamists' deadly rampage.

Madagali in Adamawa has a large number of Christians and was overrun last week. The Islamists also seized Gulak, the headquarters of Madagali local government council, this weekend.

The Islamists vandalised and destroyed churches and church buildings and singled out Christians who remained, according to residents.

"Christians in the town are really in a terrible situation, a moment of great persecution," said Father Gideon Obasogie, the spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, which stretches from Yobe, through Borno to Adamawa.

"Christian men were caught and beheaded, the women were forced to become Muslim and were taken as wives to the terrorists.

"Some Boko Haram sympathisers around the town identified Christian homes to be occupied and the Christians hiding were also identified and killed. Strict Sharia law had been promulgated."

Schools, Christian churches and religious buildings have been repeatedly attacked and razed during the five-year insurgency.

A declaration by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a video released last month that the captured Borno town of Gwoza was now part of an Islamic caliphate has only heightened Christian fears of persecution.

But the Bishop of Maiduguri, Oliver Dashe, told AFP: "Both Christians and Muslims are always killed because a bomb blast does not discriminate between who is a Christian or a Muslim.

"However, from the waves of recent attacks, you could clearly say that the Christians are worst hit," he said in an email interview.

- 'Out of control' -

Figures compiled by the diocese based on the testimony of residents and parishioners who have fled make for sober reading.

Bishop Oliver said that more than 90,000 Catholics had been displaced in the recent fighting.

Between 2009 when the insurgency began and this year, more than 500 Catholics have been killed, 50 churches destroyed and three schools, including a seminary, razed. Nine other church schools have been shut.

According to the United Nations, at least 650,000 people have fled their homes in recent years because of Boko Haram violence, fear of attack but also the often indiscriminate and violent reprisals by security forces.

Since 2009, the insurgency in Africa's most populous nation has claimed at least 10,000 lives according to the authorities but the true figure is impossible to verify independently.

"The situation for now seems out of control," said Bishop Dashe. "The terrorists should embrace dialogue and drop their arms."

Nigeria specialist Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos, said the Boko Haram insurgency is not an "inter-religious" conflict pitting Muslims against Christians.

"It's mainly a war between Muslims, an insurrection of Islamists against those who they consider bad Muslims," said Perouse de Montclos, from the French Institute of Geopolitics in Paris.

"Boko Haram has existed for about 15 years and they have attacked Christians but the majority of the victims are Muslims."

The heavily-armed group has previously attacked senior Muslim figures for recognising and working with the constitutionally secular Nigerian government.

In Gamboru Ngala, a border town in Borno's far northeast which was overrun last week, the Islamists executed the town's most senior Muslim cleric, residents said.

The Emir of Gwoza was also killed in May during an attack on his convoy. Two other traditional rulers were attacked but escaped unharmed.

Boko Haram has even tried to assassinate two of the most senior and influential Muslim figures in Nigeria: the late emir of Kano and the Shehu of Borno, the number two and three Muslim leaders in the country.

The most senior figure, the Sultan of Sokoto, has also been threatened.

"Boko Haram's agenda has not changed since its beginnings in 2002," said Perouse de Montclos.

"The insurrection aims to establish a caliphate under Sharia (Islamic law), an enclave from a corrupted Muslim world."

US Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Thursday in Abuja that her country was concerned by increasing Boko Haram violence and territorial gains in Nigeria, warning that the deteriorating situation threatened the African giant's future.