Nigerian Christian, Muslim groups at odds over who has most followers

(Photo: REUTERS / Tony Gentile)Pope Francis exchanges a gift with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan during a private audience at the Vatican March 22, 2014.

Catholics are said to be risking their lives to attend Sunday Mass in a city in northern Nigeria where most of the country's Muslims live as representatives of both groups are talking at the presidentially convened National Conference.

Until fairly recently mainly northern Muslims and southern Christians who roughly balance each other out among Nigeria's 177 million people have coexisted without too much friction.

That was until the 21st century arrival of the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram, which has been viciously attacking particularly Christians, but also Muslims in the north killing around 10,000 people.

The BBC has reported that more than 500 people have been killed in Boko Haram attacks this year.

Boko Haram means "Western education is sinful," and the group targets Christianity and the Church, educational institutions, the Nigerian government, and moderate Muslims.

More recently, however, a key Christian grouping and a Muslim group have been at odds over each other's proportional representation in Africa's most populous nation.

Nigeria's umbrella body for Christian body on Saturday criticised a Muslim group for claiming that Muslims constitute the majority of the country's population, Nigerian newspapers have reported.

"The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) will boycott future census in Nigeria beginning with the 2016 exercise if they do not include religion" Dr. Musa Asake, the association's secretary, said in a strongly-worded statement.

The statement came in response to claims by a Muslim body, Jama'atu Nasril Islam, at the National Conference that Christians make up only 40 percent of Nigeria's population.

"The claim by Jama'atu Nasril Islam is an unprovoked defamation of Christians in Nigeria," said Asake.

The JNI, a body of Muslims in Nigeria's north led by the Sultan of Sokoto, Abubakar Sa'ad, claimed at the conference that Muslims make up the bulk of Nigeria's population.


The JNI claim of 62 percent Christian representation at the conference is supported by other Muslim groups, including the umbrella Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, which has officially petitioned President Goodluck Jonathan to seek a redress.

Jonathan inaugurated the 492-delegate National Conference and delegates have been urged to shun ethnic interests and to seek genuine Nigerian national unity.

The exact proportion can be important to each religious group in determining representation at bodies such as the National Conference.

"We are, therefore, challenging the Secretary-General of the JNI to make it public the source of his population figures which show that Christians in this country are 40 percent," said the Christian leader.

"CAN may need to remind JNI of the argument and refusal of Muslims to include religion during the last census in Nigeria," he noted.

Asake rejected quoted estimates from international bodies, such as the CIA Factbook and international pollster Pew Review, that Muslims constitute about or more than 50 percent of Nigeria's population, World Bulletin reported.

"When and how are these figures by the international agencies arrived at?" Asake asked.

"Which of the international agencies have census figures that Nigerians do not have? Has there been any census by international agencies in Nigeria?" he asked.

The Christian leader said JNI's claims could undermine Muslim-Christian relations in the country noting that its figures at its national conference "are mere speculation and conjectures."

"It is another way of using religion to shoot down the conference," Aske charged.

"We appeal to JNI not to use religion as a basis for their reservations about the National Conference. We believe the conference will do Nigeria a lot of good," he said.

The Muslim group has accused the Nigerian president of pushing a hidden agenda claiming he has given 62 percent representation in the National Conference to fellow Christians whilst only giving Muslims 22 percent of the 492 delegates.

The meeting will discuss many matters including Sharia, the Islamic law.

Meanwhile the Catholic News Agency has reported that Catholics in a key northern Nigerian city in the conflict zone are risking their lives to attend Sunday Mass, due to violence from violent extremists.

"There were a lot of bomb explosions, but that did not seem to deter people from coming to church," the news agency quoted Father John Bakeni from St. Patrick's Cathedral in Maiduguri as saying after a mass held during a rocket propelled grenade attack on the city's military barracks.

"It was a very humbling and edifying experience to see so many people at Mass. The place was packed," the priest told Aid to the Church in Need in a March 18 interview.

The U.N. estimates that the attacks have led to more than 470,000 internally displaced persons in Nigeria.

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