“Nigeria: Calls for inquiry into religious violence” runs the headline in an article by the Associated Press today.

Hundreds of Christians, including women and children, were killed over the weekend when Muslim herdsmen attacked three mostly Christian towns near the northern Nigerian city of Jos. The attacks are thought to be reprisals for similar clashes between Muslim and Christian groups over control of fertile farmland in the region in January.

But contrary to many news reports, Nigeria’s bishops and the Holy See stress the conflict is more about ethnicity and politics than religion. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi expressed the Holy See’s “concern and horror” over the wave of violence in the country, and said Monday that it appeared the Christians had been attacked not for religious but for social reasons.

Speaking yesterday on Vatican Radio, the Archbishop of Abuja, John Olorunfemi, said the violence was the result of “a classic feud between farmers and herdsmen, the difference being that the herdsmen are all Muslim and the farmers are Christians”.

“It’s easy for the international press to simply report that Muslim and Christians are killing each other,” he said. “But this is not the case because the cause is not religious but has to do with social, economic, tribal and cultural issues and differences.”

In an article for the British magazine The Tablet this week, the Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama, wrote that the real underlying causes of the conflict are poverty, corruption and tensions between “indigenous” and “settler” communities, adding that religion has been “hijacked.”

“The aggressive use of the mass media and the promise of material prosperity give the impression that religion is not about eternal or supernatural values but about earthly progress and domination,” he wrote, before this latest outbreak of violence. “It is against this backdrop that the violent clashes in Jos took place in January.”

Religious leaders, he said, “need to reclaim its integrity and promote peace and reconciliation” and political leaders need to address the underlying causes, work for the common good, and stop using religion to score political points or “more bloodshed will follow.”

Another cause of the ongoing violence is an absence of justice for the victims. Archbishop Kaigama says no one has been held to account for previous atrocities committed in 1994, 2001 and 2008 despite two previous commissions of inquiry.

And while it may not be a cause, Islam does appear to have played some role in the violence as tensions rose considerably after the introduction of Sharia law in the country in the 1990s.

Archbishop Kaigama has called for an end to “bigotry and extremism” but prefers to focus on constructive cooperation and dialogue with his Muslim counterparts; he has spent the past few years developing a good friendship with the local emir.

“Either we learn to accept and appreciate our differences, or we destroy one another and ourselves,” he wrote. “Islam and Christianity are both present in Jos and the surrounding Plateau State. So if we take the view that either or both is the problem, then we are stuck in the inevitability of violence.”