Nigeria Muslim Leader Denies Calling for Jihad, says 'I Love Christians'

Nigeria's top Muslim leader said that he meant no harm against Christians when he urged a Muslim group last week to counter Christian evangelism by spreading Islam.

Alhaji Saad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto and spiritual leader of Nigeria's 70 million Muslims, clarified to African journalists meeting in his palace last weekend that he was quoted out of context and that he never meant any violence against Christians, according to the Nigeria-based Daily Champion newspaper Monday.

"I am not a violent person. Islam is not a violent religion and we had no intention of calling for a jihad; not in the least," Abubakar asserted on Friday, according to Daily Champion.

"Here in Sokoto, I have maintained a cordial relationship with Christians .... We truly love Christians and do not hold anything against them," he maintained.

Early last week, during a meeting of Northern Traditional Rulers (emirs), the sultan raised concerns about growing Christian evangelism in the West African country and called for an increase in Muslim evangelism.

"The rise of secularism and the increasing activities of western evangelical organisations have made it all the more urgent that the message of Islam shall be heard loud and clear and the Jama'tu Nasil Islam (JNI) must play a leading role in this endeavor," the Nigerian Muslim leader had said.

Abubakar, in addition to holding the title of Sultan of Sokoto, is also the president general of the Muslim group JNI.

The Sultan's comments were criticised by some as divisive and as having the potential to incite extremists to attack Christians.

"The statement is unfortunate, coming from somebody who is highly placed like the sultan," responded the Secretary General of the Northern Christian Association of Nigeria, Elder Saidu Dogo. CAN is the umbrella group of Nigeria's Christian organisations.

"You see while the past and present governments have been trying to forge an inter-religious tolerance among us, this statement from the sultan is very unfortunate," Dogo said.

Nigeria is a country with a long history of Christian-Muslim tension.

Several months ago, a Christian teacher was brutally killed and then set on fire by her Muslim students who falsely accused her of desecrating the Koran.

Two days after the teacher's murder an evangelical church in the same town was burned.

Nigeria, the most populous African nation with 140 million people, is near evenly divided between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Despite the rapidly growing Nigerian church, Christians still face persecution in Nigeria by Muslim extremists.