The radical Muslim sect Boko Haram claimed responsibility for both the Abuja-area explosion, which left bodies on rooftops and in nearby gutters, as well as a bombing near a church in Jos, in which one police officer was killed. In all, at least 39 people were killed Sunday during ongoing sectarian violence in Nigeria, which also included at least three explosions in Yobe, an agricultural state in the country’s northeast that has often been at the heart of fighting between security forces and Boko Haram.
The Islamist group routinely attacks police and security forces as well as civilians in Africa’s most populous country. A faction of the group, whose name roughly means “Western education is forbidden,” has used increasingly violent means to advance its call for a strict interpretation of Islamic law in Nigeria. Fifty percent of the population of the oil-rich nation of 155 million is Muslim and 40% is Christian.
Diplomats and global security analysts say the sect, which has members in Cameroon, Niger and Chad, maintains contact with terror groups in North Africa and Somalia.
Last year, explosions in Jos on Christmas Eve killed 32 people and left 74 wounded. In August, an attack on UN headquarters in Abuja killed 20 people. In recent days, ongoing clashes with paramilitary forces in the north of the country had left 61 people dead. On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Abuja issued a warning for Americans to be “particularly vigilant” around churches and public crowds.
With Sunday’s bombings, Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for at least 504 deaths in Nigeria this year alone, according to a count by the Associated Press.
According to local newspapers, the Abuja blast ripped through St. Theresa's Church in the town of Madalla at the end of the 6 a.m. Mass of Nativity. The parish priest of St. Theresa’s, Rev. Fr. Isaac Achi, told Nigerian newspaper This Day that more than a dozen cars leaving the church were destroyed, packed with bodies inside that were burned beyond recognition.
“Nigeria must intensify its efforts in the area of security and guarantee freedom of movement and worship,” the newspaper reported Achi as saying.
The second attack occurred shortly after in the central city of Jos, near the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church. Government officials said one police officer was killed when gunfire broke out among those outside the church, according to the Associated Press. Two undetonated explosive devices were also reportedly discovered in nearby buildings.
Jon Gambrell, chief Nigeria correspondent for Associated Press, said via Twitter that Nigeria’s secret police, the State Security Service, claimed three people died in suicide attacks on its headquarters in the town of Damaturu, in Yobe state.
The attack on the Abuja-area Catholic church came just hours after Pope Benedict XVI delivered his traditional Christmas message from the Vatican. A spokesman for the Vatican, Father Federico Lombardi, condemned the bombings as “terrorist violence.”
“We are close to the suffering of the Nigerian Church and the entire Nigerian people so tried by terrorist violence, even in these days that should be of joy and peace,” Lombardi said, according to Reuters news agency.
-- Gretchen L. Wilson
Photo: The partially destroyed St Theresa's Church after a deadly Christmas bomb blast in Nigeria that killed 35 people and wounded dozens of others. Credit : Sunday Aghaeze / AFP/Getty Images