Muslim leaders in Nigeria are reacting angrily to a letter published Thursday, in which the country's justice minister declared the Islamic law, Sharia, unconstitutional. In his letter, the justice minister called on governors of the 12 northern states that have adopted Sharia to reconsider their decisions.

Nigerian Justice Minister Kanu Agabi urged governors of the states to modify their application of Sharia, to bring it in line with the country's secular laws.

Mr. Agabi alleged that Sharia, as it is being applied, discriminates against Nigerian Muslims by subjecting them to criminal penalties that are more severe than those that are applied to all other Nigerians.

Under Sharia, penalties include the amputation of one's hands for theft. Offenses such as adultery are punishable by death.

The justice minister's declaration follows a wave of international protests over the case of Safiya Husseini, a 35-year-old woman who, last October, was condemned to death by stoning for adultery. Ms. Husseini is currently appealing the sentence. Her next hearing is scheduled on Monday.

Mr. Agabi says he has received hundreds of letters from all over the world protesting the types of punishments that have been handed down by Sharia courts. The justice minister said he fears Nigeria may face isolation from other countries, if these punishments continue to be handed down.

Zamfara state, in the year 2000, was the first to adopt Sharia. Its governor, Ahmed Sani, accused the justice minister of basing his statement solely on the grievances of Christian westerners, a reference to letters of protest that have been sent from Europe and elsewhere regarding the Safiya Husseini case.

Islamic leaders are also criticizing the minister's letter. Lateef Adegbite is the secretary general of Nigeria's Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. Speaking from the main city, Lagos, he told VOA his reaction to the justice minister's letter is one of anger and dismay.

"We are very unhappy about this development, and we are going to issue a full and reasoned statement on this matter in due course," he said. "Every law discriminates, but most are based on rational distinction. I do not understand. I would have expected the attorney general to insist that, on no ground whatsoever, should such punishments imposed by Sharia be extended to non-Muslims. That is our position. Therefore, we are very unhappy, and we are going to make a very strong protest to the federal government."

The adoption of the Islamic code has sparked ethnic and religious clashes that have killed thousands of people during the past two years. It has also deepened a political divide between Nigeria's predominantly Muslim northern states and the officially secular national government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner.