ABUJA, Nigeria — Following an outbreak of violence earlier this year, Nigeria's government and religious leaders have taken steps to resolve tensions between Christians and Muslims.

At issue has been the place of Islamic law, known as Shariah, which has traditionally been used by Muslims in Nigeria to settle civil suits among themselves, but has recently been proposed or enacted in several states for use in criminal matters.

The Islamic initiative provoked rioting in a several northern cities that left more than 400 civilians dead, prompting the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo to revoke the imposition of Shariah in three states, and to suspend plans for its introduction in another three.

The move was hailed by the nation's Catholic bishops who, in a statement, condemned the violence on all sides and said the Church is “committed to one Nigeria, where persons of different religious and ethnic traditions can live together in peace and harmony.

“We do not countenance the breakup of Nigeria,” the statement continued, “neither are we in favor of a split of Nigeria into different pockets, where one state lives under the constitution and a neighboring state lives under another law.”

They cautioned that their opposition to Shariah legislation “does not in any way diminish our respect for Islam and its adherents.” While noting the overall good relations between Christians and Muslims, the bishops also pledged to strengthen interfaith dialogue.

The bishops also called for a constitutional reform to insure that the state does not favor one religion over any other. While religious tensions are not new in Nigeria, they have never caused anything like the violent clashes that have lately been seen.

During his 1998 visit to Nigeria, Pope John Paul II beatified the Trappist Father Cyprian Michael Iweni Tansi in a ceremony that was witnessed by more than three million people, and which was viewed with pride by both the Christian and Muslim communities.

The Holy Father used the occasion to encourage peaceful relations between the two main religions: “When we see others as brothers and sisters, it is then possible to begin the process of healing the divisions within society and between ethnic groups.”

But national unity suffered during the recent promotion of Shariah, which is the rule of law in Muslim states such as those in the Middle East.

Riots between Christians and Muslims were especially fierce in the northern city of Kaduna following that state's attempt to introduce Islamic criteria in criminal cases. There was even an attempt to burn down the Catholic cathedral.

In the three northern states where it was briefly imposed, Shariah produced such penalties as 100 lashes for adultery and 80 lashes for drinking alcohol. Under the law, motorbike taxi operators could have gone to jail for carrying women on their vehicles

But a spokesman for the Nigerian Embassy in London, told the Register, “This is not about religion; it is about poverty. In Nigeria there is no problem between the Christians and the Muslims. It is easy to give a poor man a cause to riot.” He added: “We have had Shariah law as part of our constitution [for civil matters between Muslims] since independence and there is no problem. Our real problem is poverty, and countries such as Britain should do all they can to stop this debt which is killing our country.”

Nigeria has a population of more than 100 million, making it Africa's most populous country.

There are no reliable figures that break down the religious composition of the country but it has been estimated that Christians make up 50% of population, Muslims 40% and others 10%.

Muslims, however, dominate the political culture and the military, which has ruled the country for most of the 40 years since Nigeria gained its independence from Great Britain.

The recent crisis has been the most serious threat to the West African nation's unity since the end of military rule last May.

On the issue of a religious favoritism, the bishops said the government “should desist from favoring one religion over others” in such areas as granting permits for pilgrimages, the building of new places of worship, and allowing more than one religion to have access to the media and to provide religious instruction in public schools.

They warned that politicians “should refrain from playing on people's religious sentiments as they [seek votes], knowing how this can easily erupt into violence. We strongly urge Nigerians to be vigilant and not allow themselves to be exploited in this way.”

Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of the capital Abuja, told Fides, the Vatican-based missionary news agency, that “some circles dislike President Obasanjo's programs and they are exploiting religious differences to cause trouble for him.

“In Kaduna armed civilians were seen.” the archbishop said. “But they have no money to buy arms. Who supplies the weapons? Who is behind these riots?

“The anti-Obasanjo circles have army contacts, and the question of the Shariah is being used to incite enmity.”

Iqbal Saria, chairman of the Economic Development Committee of Britain's Muslim Council, said the political mischief has been the work of former members of the military regime.

“Like in Bosnia, these people need a new power base as they have lost their power, money and influence,” he told the Register.

According to a British-based Nigerian priest, religious and tribal tensions have been simmering just below the surface of Nigerian society since the Biafran War of the late 1960s – the civil war that nearly resulted in a Bosnia-style division of the nation.

Father Augustine Ihedinma, who coordinates the network of Nigerian Catholic communities in Britain, said, “Since the civil war the tensions have always been present.”

He said the Islamic bloc within the Organization of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries, are increasingly trying to forge stronger links with Nigeria, an oil-exporting nation.

“There are good relations in some parts of the country between Christians and Muslims but I also believe that Christians are right to be worried about the Muslims,” said Father Ihedinma.

All parties see the suspension of Shariah as a temporary lull, but Catholic leaders are optimistic about a long-term solution:

“All that is required is that our laws should give enough room for everyone, Christians, Muslims and others to follow their consciences in searching for and carrying out God's will in their lives.” said Father lhedinma. “To ensure a permanent solution to all these problems, we are convinced that Nigeria will now have to review our Constitution along these lines. There should no longer be room for special provisions for any religion in our Constitution.”

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England