Boko Haram taking over more and more territory.
As a Nigerian bishop warns that Boko Haram could take over the entire northeast of his country by mid-February, bishops in neighhboring Niger have canceled all church activities for the forseeable future, in response to Islamist attacks against Christians there.
In fierce fighting Sunday that killed more than 200 combatants, Nigerian troops clashed with Islamic extremists who attacked Maiduguri, the biggest city in northeastern Nigeria, from three fronts, according to AP.
"We find ourselves in a very dangerous and difficult moment," said Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of Maiduguri, according to Fides New Agency. "We risk seeing Boko Haram conquer the entire northeast before the end of the election, unless foreign troops intervene."
But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said no such help would be coming from the United States if national elections were not peaceful and transparent.
Bishop Doeme, whose diocese is in Borno State, was referring to the presidential elections to be held in mid-February and to the coordination of the military actions of neighboring countries against Boko Haram, after the latest raids of Nigerian extremists in Cameroon and the conquest of the base of the international force of Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad.
"The situation is very complex and the first victims are innocent civilians," he said.
As well, Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama is warning that failure to halt the advance of Boko Haram fighters could bring further catastrophic consequences for many innocent Nigerians.
Archbishop Kaigama, who heads the Archdiocese of Jos in Plateau State, told Vatican Radio that up until now militants have been attacking and occupying villages around Maiduguri, but that the government is obviously unable to halt the fighters or provide protection for civilians who could find themselves trapped with nowhere else to turn.
Insurgents continued scorched-earth attacks on villages some 125 miles to the south, in Adamawa state, slitting throats of residents, looting and burning homes and abducting dozens of trapped women and children, according to escaping survivors who spoke with AP.
Adamawa state legislator Adamu Kamale appealed for troops to protect civilians in Michika, where six villages are under attack. "The attacks have continued since Friday with no presence of security operatives," he complained.
The multiple attacks come as Kerry visited Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital nearly 1,000 miles southwest of Maiduguri, to encourage peaceful elections on Feb. 14 in Africa’s most populous country.
"This will be the largest democratic election on the continent," Kerry said. "Given the stakes, it’s absolutely critical that these elections be conducted peacefully — that they are credible, transparent and accountable."
Kerry met with President Goodluck Jonathan and his chief rival candidate, former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari. Kerry told reporters afterward that he won pledges from both to refrain from violence. He promised more U.S. support in the fight against Boko Haram if the elections take place peacefully and democratically.
More than 800 people were killed in northern protests after Buhari, a Muslim northerner, lost 2011 elections to Jonathan, a Christian from the south.
Boko Haram has denounced democracy and wants to make an Islamic state of Nigeria, whose population of about 170 million is divided almost equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.
In Maiduguri, troops blocked roads into the city, which also prevented civilians from escaping.
Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade said Sunday evening that troops successfully repelled attacks on Maiduguri and Konduga, 25 miles to the southeast.
But he said they were mounting air raids in Monduno, a town 88 miles northeast of Maiduguri, which Boko Haram seized Sunday morning.
More than 200 combatants died Sunday, mainly insurgents, according to soldiers and civilian self-defense fighters who counted bodies. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak to reporters.
President Jonathan made a surprise visit to Maiduguri 10 days ago and pledged to crush the insurgents. But his repeated promises are ringing hollow as Boko Haram since August has seized and kept control of large swaths of the northeast, including key border crossings into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
With encouragement from the United Nations, Nigeria and its neighbors are setting up a multinational force to fight the extremists who recently have increased cross-border raids into Cameroon. But there is distrust of Nigeria’s military, which many believe is infiltrated by Boko Haram at the highest levels.
The Maiduguri attack is not unexpected. Boko Haram on Jan. 3 seized a key military base and Baga town on the border with Cameroon, killing hundreds of civilians and leaving the main road open to Maiduguri. The military said they were counter-attacking a week ago. But escaping civilians said there was no fighting and the insurgents retain their control.
Maiduguri is the birthplace of Boko Haram and has been attacked many times in the 5-year Islamic insurgency that killed 10,000 people last year.
Meanwhile, the bishops of Niger have cancelled Masses and shut Catholic schools, healthcare facilities and charity outreaches after Muslim protestors torched more than 40 churches across the country, according to a report in the Tablet.
The protests were started as an angry response to the publication of the depiction of Muhammad on the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine. The edition was the first since Islamic extremists in Paris massacred 12 people at the magazine’s offices in retaliation for earlier cartoons of Muhammad, the British Catholic publication said.
In a statement, Bishops Laurent Lompo, Ambroise Ouedraogo and Michel Cartatéguy said that suspending activities will allow them to pray and calmly consider “the painful events that we have had recently. We cordially thank all those who have expressed their solidarity at this difficult time.”
In Niger there were reports of three deaths in the capital, Niamey, and another five in the second city, Zinder. The bodies of three of the dead were found in churches. More than 250 people in Zinder were forced to seek refuge at a military base. Christian properties across the country were targeted, including orphanages, pastors’ homes and church-run schools.
The archbishop went on: “The Christian community in Niger is still in a state of shock: Almost all the churches [of the diocese], 12 to 14 of them, were completely plundered. Nothing remains, they were totally burned.”
“Only the cathedral is still standing,” he said.
In Nigeria, Archbishop Kaigama said the situation is “very dangerous and very disturbing, because once they capture Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, then you can be sure that all of the areas around will easily fall to them.” Asked by Vatican Radio whether the international community should step in diplomatically and focus on dialogue, Archbishop Kaigama says this situation has nothing to do with dialogue because “we are dealing with a group that has lost all rationality and kills people at will.”
“Whether they are Christians or Muslims, they kill them indiscriminately” he said.