Ongoing violence in Nigeria has exacerbated tensions between the country’s Muslims and Christians. Nigeria has equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, and 92 percent of the country’s population says they pray every day, according to a 2010 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Hundreds of Christians and Muslims have died this year alone, including scores killed last weekend (July 7-8) when Muslim militants attacked Christian villages in the nation’s central plateau, where the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south meet.
Here are five things to know about the violence in Nigeria.
1. This is not simply a Muslim-Christian conflict.
While Muslims and Christians are attacking each other, the combatants also divide along ethnic and cultural lines, and grievances often have little to do with religion.
“Religion is part of the mix, but it’s very much linked in with political, ethnic, justice and poverty issues as well,” said Claire Amos, a World Council of Churches official who recently visited the country to assess the crisis.
One of the main fault lines divides Muslim nomadic herders and Christian farmers. The groups clash as the herders migrate through farmland, Amos said. “It’s of course an archetypal tension. It’s the basic story of the conflict between Cain and Abel.”
2. A growing desert makes matters worse.
Climate change and poor natural resource management create an ever-larger desert. “As the Sahara expands, people have to travel further south, which brings them into conflict with farmers,” said John Campbell, a Nigeria expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The migrating northerners are the predominantly Muslim Hausa-Fulani people, the Southerners — the predominantly Christian Berom.
3. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram is a menace, but its role is often mischaracterized.
Boko Haram, which envisions a purely Islamic society, has exploited the frustrations of pious Muslims who struggle to live faithfully in a society that is rife with corruption and that happens to be led by a Christian president.
According to the congressionally charted United States Institute of Peace, “since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria’s northeast.”
But many who study the conflict say portrayals of Boko Haram as the Nigerian version of al-Qaida oversimplify the crisis.
“Boko Haram is very local, and linking them to a global jihadi movement is irresponsible,” said Qamar-ul Huda, of USIP’s Religion and Peacemaking Center. “They may have similar tactics and techniques, but they’re not global and they don’t even have a global ideology.”
4. Oil is flowing in Nigeria
Some look at the wretched poverty and say oil in the Niger Delta is a bane to the country. That’s an overstatement, said Huda, but among many Nigerians there persists the view that oil isn’t doing the nation much good.
“The frustration is that after more than 10 years of civilian rule, the political and economic institutions are still weak, and authorities are not able to maneuver a great prosperity for people,” Huda said.
That sense of helplessness and deprivation breeds violence not only in the aggrieved Delta area, but in other parts of the nation where Muslim-Christian tensions are already high, he said.
5. If you’re not in Nigeria, you can still do something about the crisis.
Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, calls on U.S. citizens to contact their representatives in Congress and tell them of their concerns about sectarian violence in Nigeria.
“They can also call on legislators to fund and implement programs to stop religious violence and promote religious freedom in that country,” said Lantos Swett.
Muslims and Christians “can urge their co-religionists in Nigeria to engage in interfaith dialogue, not engage in religious violence.”