.- At least 99 people were reportedly left dead after attacks on two Christian villages in northeast Nigeria this week, suspected to have been carried out by Islamic extremist militants.
Attackers flooded a Catholic church during a Jan. 26 Mass in Wada Chakawa village in Adamawa state. They set off explosives, took hostages and fired guns into the congregation in a five-hour attack, the Associated Press reports.
A separate attack later took place in the village of Kawuri, in northeastern Borno state. More than 50 extremists reportedly took part, killing dozens and burning homes to the ground.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks. However, the Islamic sect Boko Haram is currently resisting a military crackdown in the region and is suspected to be behind the violence.
The group – whose name means “Western education is forbidden” – launched an uprising in 2009 and hopes to impose its vision of sharia law on the country, Reuters reports. It has targeted security forces, politicians and Christian minorities in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north.
On Jan. 28 U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. “condemns Boko Haram’s vicious attacks.”
“We support Nigerian authorities as they begin to investigate these attacks, and urge citizens to support their efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Psaki said the U.S. is committed to support northern Nigerians’ “struggle against violent extremism” and to support the government as it counters “the threat posed by Boko Haram and associated groups.”
The U.S. recognized Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization in November 2013 after a lengthy period of advocacy from human rights groups and Christian groups.
The group has been accused of killing at least 3,000 people. It is suspected in nearly 200 deaths in January 2014 alone.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja voiced his disagreement with those who claim “that Boko Haram has nothing to do with religion.”
“They carry out their activities shouting ‘Allah Akbar’,” he observed, according to a report by the Nigerian Bishops' Conference.
“There is a religious dimension that if we do not address and acknowledge, we may be wasting a lot of time,” he said in a Jan. 29 press call.
The Nigerian cardinal urged Boko Haram members, their sympathizers, and those who are giving them religious instruction to engage others in dialogue.
“Unfortunately, that has not started,” he said. “Unfortunately, the activities of the Boko Haram have indeed widened the gap between the Christians and Muslims.”
Cardinal Onaiyekan warned that the Nigerian government’s emphasis on purchasing “all kinds of gadgets” to combat Boko Haram cannot solve the security problems on their own.
He called on the government to sponsor intra-religious and inter-religious discourse, warning that if religious leaders cannot come together to talk, then religious extremism cannot be addressed.
When an educated young men is living in the bush and committing serious acts of violence, he said, there is “something that has happened to his head and mind.”
“For someone to change his mind, he must be engaged, not with a gun.”