The President of the Nigerian bishops’ conference has called on the government “to be more proactive” in protecting people in the southern part of Kaduna state, which lies in Nigeria’s ‘middle belt,’ where the predominantly Muslim north of the country meets the predominantly Christian south.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama was making a visit to the Diocese of Kafanchan on behalf of the bishops’ conference as a sign of solidarity.

“We are particularly saddened by the constant and wanton destruction of lives and properties,” the archbishop said in remarks published by the Catholic News Service of Nigeria.

“Yesterday, it was Southern Kaduna, recently, it was Zaki-Biam in Benue State and the other day, it was Ile-Ife in Oyo State,” Kaigama said, “no one knows which community will be the next victim.”

The region has seen attacks by Fulani herdsmen on local farmers, with some retaliatory killings by the farmers. The tensions are heightened by the fact the herdsmen are Muslim, while the farmers are predominantly Christian.

Although the Catholic church estimated in December that more than 800 people had died in the Kaduna clashes, the government officially pegs the total much lower.

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Government officials have also tried to insist there’s no religious dimension to the conflict, suggesting it’s largely about ethnic tensions. However, Church leaders say it is more complicated than that.

“We live in a country that is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and complex in nature,” – Kaigama said “that is why we must constantly appeal to the sensibilities of our political leaders not to be seen to promote the interest of any particular group but to be neutral and seek the common things that will promote unity, fairness and equity in the country.”

In February, the central government sent dozens of members of the special forces to the area, although local media report many of these officers are now extorting motorists for bribes.

“The crisis here has persisted because of the way and manner the federal and state governments, as well as the security agents are handling it,” said Bishop Joseph Bagobiri of Kafanchan.

“The root cause of this crisis is the institutionalization of what could be regarded as structural injustice,” Bagobiri told the CNSN, claiming the state government favors the predominantly Muslim northern part of the state when funding projects.

“This to my view, is a deliberate policy of injustice designed to shut our people out from the scheme of things and deny us our rights”

The bishop said the situation will make it difficult for Christianity to survive in northern Nigeria.

Earlier this year, he said small businesses owned by Christians as well as churches were being singled out for destruction in many villages.

Now, he says the Church must learn to live with persecution.

“We as a Church must evolve new ways on how we can face violence without losing faith,” Bagobiri said, “It is our prayer that God will give us his strength and the needed direction on how to make Christianity survive despite the constant attacks and persecutions we received.”

He added that since the government is not protecting them, the people have turned to prayer.

“It is only God that can save us from our present situation,” he said.

“Our hope in Him is never in vain since he knows our problem and He will deliver us one day just as he delivered the people of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians.”

The ongoing violence in northern Nigeria was one of the topics of discussion last week at  a summit on the African church sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, and held at the university’s Global Gateway center in Rome.

Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria an overwhelmingly Muslim area in the country’s far north – said the Christian-Muslim conflict in the country was “cover for something else.”

“What people call Christian-Muslim conflict, there’s nothing inevitable about it,” Kukah said. “I think the Western media has constructed it, and it’s very popular. And it’s also very popular in Nigeria, but I have said over a 30-year period, there’s no real conflict between Christians and Muslims.

“The same Muslims and Christians work together in the bureaucracy. They serve together in the army and in other arms of government. What we call violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is really the failure of law and order,” he said.

Kukah’s fundamental argument is that if Nigeria had a real democracy capable of equitably distributing the country’s potentially vast resources, what people often perceive as religious and ethnic conflict would essentially disappear.

“Right now the driver [of the country] is asleep at the wheel, because if we had been able to fix the issues of human integrity, jobs, and families, security, and so on and so forth, we would not be having this conversation about supposed Christian/Muslim tensions,” he said.