State governments are mulling restrictions on religious practice in order to stem the spread of sectarian violence in Nigeria—a concern underscored Monday when gunmen opened fire at an evening Bible study in the country’s largely Christian south, killing at least 19 worshipers.
Church shootings and bombings have become all-too-commonplace in the troubled West African nation, especially in its largely Muslim north. But the attack at Deeper Life Church in Kogi state—150 miles southwest of the nation’s centralized capital, Abuja—represents an unusual southern incursion by militants. One assailant turned off the lights in the windowless sanctuary while others used assault rifles to mow down the crowd.
The shooting follows, among other incidents, the July killing of 50 church members seeking refuge in a pastor’s home in Plateau state, and the subsequent killing of Christian senator Gyang Dantong—known as Nigeria’s “bridge between religions, cultures and tribes”—and others during a funeral for the victims.
Reprisal attacks have increased in severity as Nigerian Christians have debated whether to turn the other cheek or seek “an eye for an eye.” A prominent member of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Calabar pastor Emmah Isong, attributed recent reprisal attacks in Kaduna state to pent-up frustration.
“[They] were in response to the frequent attacks on Christians in their places of worship,” he told Nigerian newspaper This Day. “They were fed up with such attacks and had to do something.” A Kaduna pastor was arrested in connection with reprisal killings, though his involvement is highly disputed.
Nigerian states are proposing their own solutions. In July, the Kaduna state government initiated an inter-religious school exchange program to promote tolerance and trust between Christian and Muslim students, and may soon expand it to include teachers and parents. In Niger state, local leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) have partnered with Muslim leaders to plan a joint speaking tour to schools, churches, and mosques in order to promote peace.
More controversial are proposed restrictions on religious practice.
In July, the Bauchi state government announced plans to regulate preaching by Muslim and Christian clerics in order to “promot[e] peace and mutual co-existence.” Last week, the governor of Osun state proposed stricter guidelines on Muslim preaching in order to reduce extremism. Senate president David Mark has also raised the prospect of requiring preachers to be licensed by the government.
Plateau state government wants to regulate the construction and location of churches in order to reduce their vulnerability to attacks. “We want worshippers to be properly safeguarded,” said state commissioner Abraham Yiljap.
In June, the Ebonyi state government announced a temporary ban on religious programs on public television, prompting the local CAN leader to say the decision “will bring about total spiritual darkness for the state and her people.”