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Nigeria Violence Seen as Sign of Growing Religious Intolerance - 2002-11-24

Nigerian Red Cross officials say more than 200 people died in four days of religious clashes over the country's now-abandoned plans to host this year's Miss World pageant. The clashes occurred in the northern city of Kaduna.

For residents of this majority-Muslim city, Sunday was the first time in days that they could venture out freely. Soldiers patrolled the streets, as residents swept up debris in homes and burned-out churches, and cleared away burned cars.

Four days of rioting ended after the approximately 90 contestants of the Miss World pageant boarded a special flight for London early Sunday. With the news that scores of people had died as a result of controversy over the pageant, organizers decided to move the event to London.

On Friday, the violence in Kaduna spread to the capital, Abuja, where the contestants had been staying.

Islamic leaders in Nigeria's Muslim north had early on opposed Nigeria's plans to host the event, calling it an indecent exhibition of nudity. Muslim leaders were especially irritated that event organizers had chosen to hold it during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The rioting of the last few days was triggered when a newspaper published an article mocking the Islamic leaders' protests. The article, which was later retracted, said the Islamic prophet Mohamed would have probably taken one of the Miss World contestants for a wife.

Religious and ethnic violence are nothing new to Kaduna, which two years ago was the scene of clashes that killed hundreds of people. The fighting then was triggered by the introduction of the Islamic law, Sharia, in Kaduna state, where Christians make up a sizable minority.

To some observers, the latest fighting was a sign of growing intolerance by Muslims and Christians of each other's way of life.

Hussein Salimon, a Christian, said he has lived in Kaduna's mixed Kabala neighborhood for most of his life. He said he used to consider Muslims his friends. Now, with his neighbors' homes and his church burned in the riots, he said, he can no longer live among Muslims. On Sunday, he loaded his family's furniture onto a truck and moved out of the neighborhood.

Mr. Salimon, now among the thousands displaced by the violence, said he feels ashamed of what his country has shown the world in the last few days.

"It's a big embarrassment for Nigeria, for them to have canceled Miss World. It would have been a plus for us. In that case, if they want to hold the World Cup here, they may not consider Nigeria. Security is poor. It is unfortunate," he said.

Sectarian violence has been among the biggest challenges confronting President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, whose election in 1999 ended a long string of military governments in Nigeria.

Mr. Obasanjo, who plans to seek re-election next year, prayed for peace at services in the main city, Lagos, on Sunday.