- Associated Press - Saturday, December 25, 2010

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Dozens of armed men attacked the church on Christmas Eve, dragging the pastor out of his home and shooting him to death. Two young men from the choir rehearsing for a late-night carol service also were slain.

The group of about 30 attackers armed with guns and knives also killed two people passing by Victory Baptist Church. The assailants only left after setting the church and pastor’s house ablaze.

Danjuma Akawu, the church’s secretary, managed to escape after he and others climbed over the church’s fence.

“I cannot understand these attacks,” Mr. Akawu said. “Why Christians? Why Christians? The police have failed to protect us.”

At the opposite end of the city, Rev. Haskanda Jessu said that three men attacked the Church of Christ in Nigeria an hour later, killing a 60-year-old security guard.

At least 38 people died over the holiday weekend in attacks across Nigeria, including the six killed at churches in the country’s north by suspected members of a radical Muslim sect. In central Nigeria, 32 died in a series of bomb blasts in the worst violence to hit the region in months.

Two of the bombs went off near a large market where people were doing last-minute Christmas shopping. A third hit a mainly Christian area of Jos, while the fourth was near a road that leads to the city’s main mosque.

It was not immediately clear whether they were related to the church attacks. The two areas are about 320 miles apart.

The group blamed for the church attacks — the radical Muslim sect known as Boko Haram — used to be based in Bauchi, about 75 miles from the area where the bombs went off. The group now is based in Maiduguri, where the church attacks took place.

The African Union Commission’s chairman, Jean Ping, expressed shock and sadness at the explosions in Jos and church attacks in Maiduguri.

“He condemns in the strongest terms these cowardly terrorist attacks, which cannot be justified under any circumstances,” said a statement released by his office Sunday.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed his sympathy to the victims’ families and said the government will bring the perpetrators to justice.

“I assure Nigerians that government will go to the root of this,” he said of the explosions. “We must unearth what caused it, and those behind it must be brought to book.”

Religious violence already has left more than 500 people dead this year in Jos and neighboring towns and villages, but the situation was believed to have calmed down before the weekend bombings. The explosions Friday were the first major attack in Jos since the state government lifted a curfew in May.

Nigeria, a country of 150 million people, is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south. The blasts happened in central Nigeria, in the nation’s “middle belt,” where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands.

The violence, though fractured across religious lines, often has more to do with local politics, economics and rights to grazing lands. The government of Plateau state, of which Jos is the capital, is controlled by Christian politicians who have blocked Muslims from being legally recognized as citizens. That has locked many Muslims out of prized government jobs in a region where the tourism industry and tin mining have collapsed in the past decades.

Police and the army have declined to identify suspects in the Jos bombings, and state Gov. David Jang would say only that “we believe some highly placed people masterminded the attack.” Authorities, though, already have blamed the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram for the Christmas Eve church attacks.

The radical Muslim sect, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language, was thought to be vanquished in 2009. Nigeria’s military crushed its mosque into concrete shards, and its leader was arrested and died in police custody.

But now, a year later, Maiduguri and surrounding villages again live in fear of the group, whose members have assassinated police and local leaders and engineered a massive prison break, officials say. Western diplomats worry that the sect is catching the attention of al Qaeda’s North Africa branch. It remains unclear what, if any, formal links al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has made with Boko Haram.

The holiday violence in Nigeria comes as the president, a Christian from the south of Nigeria, is trying to unify the country to support him ahead of next year’s election. Mr. Jonathan became president earlier this year following the death of Nigeria’s elected Muslim leader, and some within his party feel the next leader also should be Muslim.

Party leaders anticipated that Mr. Jonathan’s predecessor would hold office for two, four-year terms, like the Christian president before him. An unwritten agreement in the ruling People’s Democratic Party calls for its presidential candidates to alternate between the Christian south and the Muslim north.

Associated Press writer Ahmed Mohammed in Jos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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