Church leaders in Nigeria are sharply divided over how to react to a surge in violent attacks against Christians and churches in the country's Muslim-majority north.

Hundreds of Christians have been killed and churches burnt in regular attacks launched this year by Fulani herdsmen in Jos and members of the Boko Haram terrorist sect in Kaduna, Borno, and Niger states.

Such attacks increased this spring following the controversial April election of Christian president Goodluck Jonathan. More than 800 people were killed in the violence, mostly in northern states. The Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), a major northern denomination headquartered in Jos, said it lost more than 32 members, three ministers, and 48 churches. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) said 84 of its churches were destroyed as well.

In November, a series of church bombings killed dozens in Yobe state. In September, a Christian family of eight was killed in Barkin Ladi in Plateau state.

The steady attacks have thrown the Christian community into opposing camps. While some continue to advocate for calm and prayer, others are now urging Christians to defend themselves.

CAN national president Ayo Oristejafor stated that Christians can no longer continue to watch while aggressors attack them. "I have a responsibility to defend myself and my family," he said. "Christians in the nation have suffered enough.

John Praise, general overseer of Dominion Chapel International Churches in Abuja, has called for churches to raise "young people to defend the church because nobody has the monopoly of violence.

"People say, 'When they slap your cheek, you turn the other.' We have turned both, and they have slapped us. There is nothing else to turn."

By contrast, bishop Wale Oke, national vice president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria's South West region, argues that Christians must resist such temptation.

"To fight back is contrary to the position of our Lord Jesus Christ," said Oke. "He said, 'If they strike you on one cheek, turn the other.' He did that when he was arrested. It was what he used to conquer the world."

Dozens of northern churches have been stockpiling arms and training youths to counter attacks from Muslim extremists. A fringe Christian militia named Akhwat Akwop emerged in September vowing to match "blood for more blood." However, these efforts are not supported by the broader Christian community.

Pastors' approval of self-defense has transformed over the past 25 years into angrier rhetoric that has fueled revenge killings, observes a Christian leader in Jos who requested anonymity. But there are signs that such violent mindsets may have peaked.

"Some pastors are realizing that we have taken this 'enemy' rhetoric too far. We've drifted away from the teachings of Jesus and returned to a traditional African worldview of retaliatory violence," he said. "We Christians are not without blame."

Sunday Agang, academic dean at Jos's ECWA Theological Seminary, recently published his doctoral research on the violence in northern Nigeria. He strongly cautions Christians against fighting back.

"Self-defense is engaging the issues of political, economic, and religious injustice and bringing them to public discourse," he said. "Christians must do anything they can to make the Muslims understand our shared humanity. This is what Jesus means when he said that we should turn the other cheek."

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today coverage about the church in Nigeria includes:

The Truth About the Religious Violence in Jos, Nigeria | It's not easy to state who started it or how many died. But the horror for those affected is clear. (January 21, 2010)
More Human Smoke Rises in Jos | This week's deadly riots struck home for the academic dean of ECWA Theological Seminary. (January 21, 2010)
Diagnosing Jos | Political problems don't always have political solutions. (December 23, 2008)

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