ABUJA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Islamist militant groups in Nigeria have begun targeting Christians in an attempt to provoke a religious war, the information minister said on Thursday.
Islamist insurgents in Nigeria have killed around 35,000 people and displaced at least two million in the past decade, driven first by Boko Haram and more recently by its offshoot, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Information Minister Lai Mohammed said jihadist groups in the northeast of the country have now adopted a “deliberate policy of attacking Christians.”
“They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos,” he told reporters.
Nigeria’s 200 million inhabitants are roughly split between Islam and Christianity.
Mohammed cited a number of flashpoints. In December, ISWAP beheaded 10 Christian men, and shot dead an 11th. And in January, Boko Haram executed the chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). He also pointed to raids on Christian villages in the north.
Mohammed said Nigeria was serious about tackling violent extremism and committed to protecting Christians and Muslims.
“We want to therefore appeal to our religious leaders ... not to fall for this desperate move by the insurgents, not to allow them to divide us as a people and weaken our resolve,” he said.
Kwamkur Samuel, a spokesman for CAN, said Mohammed was engaging in political rhetoric.
“Boko Haram and ISWAP have always been killing Christians and even liberal Muslims,” he said. “The problem is government management of the situation. No decisive actions have been taken to stop the killings.”
Reporting by Felix Onuah; Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by Libby George; Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Giles Elgood