Until last year, Kabiru Lawal, 29, was a committed Muslim. He embraced the revivalist Islamic spirit that had engulfed northern Nigeria and had resulted in 12 states implementing Islamic law in 2000, including his home state of Zamfara.

Then Lawal read about Jesus Christ in Islam's holy book. "I read in the Qur'an that Jesus Christ was coming back into the world and that all Muslims must believe in him," Lawal said. He gave his life to Christ, and soon the religious police came gunning for him—literally. Three times they tried to kill him, in keeping with a strict interpretation of Islamic law's proscription against apostates. But each time he escaped.

Lawal now lives in hiding, afraid to walk the streets of Gusau. He fears that if spotted, he may be murdered by just about anyone, as many Muslims believe it is the duty of any follower of Islam to kill the backslidden.

According to some media reports, enforcement of Shari'ah law in northern Nigeria has eased. In December, The New York Times reported that "these days, the fearsome [religious] police officers, known as the Hisbah, are little more than glorified crossing guards. They have largely been confined to their barracks and assigned anodyne tasks like directing traffic and helping fans to their seats at soccer games."

While punishments for immorality, like amputation for theft or stoning for adultery, are increasingly rare, local leaders say attacks against Christians and their places of worship have not lessened.

"Churches are being demolished and Christians persecuted," said the Rev. Murtala Marti Dangora, secretary of the Kano State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). "The Shari'ah has aggravated the persecution of Christians here."

During the last seven years, thousands of Christians have lost their lives and hundreds of churches have been destroyed. In December 2007, probable Muslim militants in Kaduna State killed two Christians, Henry Ogbaje and Basil Garba. In Bauchi State, ten Christians were killed and three churches were burned down when Muslim militants attacked the Christian community of Yelwa.

The state governments of Kaduna and Bauchi made no arrests for the crimes. The government in Kano State also demolished four churches in December 2007, after previously demolishing ten in October 2007.

The religious police are especially harsh toward Muslim converts to Christianity. Lawani Yakubu and Mohammed Ali Ja'afaru, two converts in Mada, Zamfara State, were arrested and charged before an Islamic court in 2002. They haven't been seen since, even by family members.

The Rev. John Garba Danbinta, an Anglican bishop in Gusau, said Islamic law is a tool being used to suppress Christianity. Far from the Christian heartland in southern Nigeria, followers of Christ live as distinct minorities in Nigeria's northern states. Christian leaders there continue to call for an end of Shari'ah law, a call that is unlikely to be heeded.

"Shari'ah creates the impression that our states are Islamic states," said the Rev. Joseph Hayap, secretary of the Kaduna State chapter of CAN. "We don't think it is ideal, because in all these states there are people of other faiths, too, living side by side with Muslims."

Related elsewhere:

The BBC has more about Nigeria's Shari'ah laws.

Previous articles on Nigeria are available in our full-coverage section.

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