Tension has gripped the volatile northern Nigerian Kaduna State after irate Muslims razed several churches and a police station in a remote town, alleging that a Christian youth had desecrated the Koran, residents and police officials said on Tuesday.
Trouble broke out last Saturday in the town of Makarfi, 150 km north of the state capital Kaduna, when a mentally disturbed Christian youth whose family came from the Christian southeast Nigeria was accosted by some Muslim youths as he tore up a copy of the Koran, witnesses said.
“The Muslim youths began beating him, but he was rescued by a policeman and taken into protective custody,” Yinusa Lawan, a resident told IRIN.
However, as news of the incident quickly spread through Makarfi - which is the hometown of the state governor Ahmed Makarfi - a mob assembled at the police station demanding that they be allowed to deal with the boy, eyewitnesses said.
Overwhelmed by the ever-increasing mob, the policemen at the station took the youth out through a backdoor and fled as well, they added.
The angry mob responded by setting the police station alight and then went through the town setting on fire at least eight churches belonging to different Christian denominations.
Suleiman Lawal, the police area commander of the Makarfi district said riot police were sent into the town to restore order , but there were no casualties.
News of the incident spread to Kaduna, the state capital, fuelling tension in the city where sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims killed more than 3,000 people between 2000 and 2002.
Residents said that in recent days many people in the city had stopped going into neighbourhoods dominated by rival religious groups as a precautionary measure.
Governor Makarfi is currently abroad, but his deputy Stephen Shekari made a radio and television broadcast on Sunday night, urging the people of Kaduna state to remain calm. He assured them that the security forces were ready to maintain peace.
Much of the tension in recent years in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims have been fed by mutual suspicions following the introduction of the strict Islamic or Shari’ah legal code by 12 states in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north.
The code stipulates harsh punishments, including amputation of limbs for stealing, public flogging for drinking alcohol and death by stoning for adultery.
Thousands of people have died in ethnic and religious violence in Africa’s most populous country of 126 million people in the past five years.