(CNSNews.com) – Suspected Islamist terrorists killed 12 Nigerians celebrating Jesus’ birth, hours before Pope Benedict XVI, in his traditional Christmas Day message, spoke out against “savage acts of terrorism” mainly targeting Christians in Africa’s most populous country.
Gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to an evangelical church in the northern state of Yobe, police said. Wire reports said the pastor was among the dead in the midnight attack.
Separately, a Baptist church in neighboring Borno state was attacked. Nigeria’s The Nation said six church members were killed.
The attacks cap the bloodiest year yet in Boko Haram’s violent campaign against Christians, with more than 700 fatalities, according to the Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans. An Associated Press count puts the number at more than 770.
It was the third consecutive Christmas marred by terrorist attacks in Nigeria. On Christmas Day last year 44 Christians were killed in a series of attacks, most of them at a Catholic church near the capital, Abuja; On Christmas Eve 2010 the target was Christian areas of the central city of Jos, where at least 32 people were killed in three bombings.
Boko Haram says its demands include a ban on non-Islamic education and the extension across the country of shari’a (Islamic law), which is currently implemented in 12 northern states. Forty percent of Nigerians are Christians.
Delivering his Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) message from the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pope voiced hope for “concord in Nigeria, where savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians.”
The latest attacks came amid tight security at churches in Abuja, Jos, and another potential hotspots, with security officials manning barricades, searching bags and frisking people wanting to enter churches.
At a Christmas Day service in the capital attended by President Goodluck Jonathan, Anglican Archbishop Nicholas Oko urged the government to find a permanent solution to the scourge.
“Since the emergence of terrorists, many people no longer go to church and many select the day they go,” the News Agency of Nigeria quoted him as saying in his sermon. “So, it is our duty and prayer that in the coming year, Nigeria will know perfect security and that men and women will return to normal life.”
Oko also appealed to Christians not to seek vengeance.
“The Christian faith does not encourage tit-for-tat for the frequent killings because Christians are peace bearers,” he said. “Irrespective of provocation, we must promote peace.”
As a result of the Boko Haram campaign, Nigeria moved into seventh place in the Institute for Economics and Peace’s recently-released annual Global Terrorism Index, a jump from 12th place a year earlier, from 16th place in 2008, and from 30th place in 2005.
Despite the escalating violence the Obama administration has resisted calls by some Nigerians and U.S. lawmakers to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization. It did name three Boko Haram individuals last June under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists.
Administration officials have also played down religion as the main motivation for Boko Haram, with assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson telling lawmakers last March that religion was “not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria.”
Instead, he said, the group was exploiting “the legitimate grievances of northern populations to garner recruits and public sympathy.”
A report last month by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court stated that the attacks in Nigeria “have been committed pursuant to the policy defined at the leadership level of Boko Haram, which aims at imposing an exclusive Islamic system of government in northern Nigeria at the expense of Christians specifically.”