Islamic violence against Christians threatens to escalate this month as Africa's most populous country decides in the next election whether a Christian president will remain in power.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's first civilian president in four decades, has spent much of his four years in office trying to keep ethno-religious violence from exploding into civil war. Much of the strife erupted when northern states began imposing Islamic Shari'ah law in 1999—in defiance of Nigeria's constitution.

State officials insist that Shari'ah law applies only to Muslims, but Human Rights Watch reports that Islamic vigilante groups arbitrarily judge and punish Christians with amputations and floggings.

"On several occasions, civilian groups attacked establishments owned by Christians and destroyed consignments of alcohol," the organization reports. "A group claiming to enforce Shari'ah flogged a Christian man for selling alcohol."

Ethno-religious violence in Plateau state resulted in the deaths of more than 2,300 persons in September 2001, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"Many northern states continued to ban or limit public proselytizing, although it is permitted by the Constitution," uscirf's 2002 report says. It adds that state officials discriminate against Christians in hiring, awarding contracts, and granting permits and licenses.

Shari'ah law adopted by 12 northern states has also put limits on church buildings and banned Christian education from state schools, according to Operation World.

The missions handbook also reports that evangelicals have grown from 5.7 percent of the population (2.1 million) in 1960 to 23.5 percent (26 million) as of 2000. Christians make up less than 50 percent and Muslims ...

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