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MADALLA, Nigeria— At a Nigerian Catholic church where a terror attack killed 35 people on Christmas, women tried to clean the sanctuary ahead of Mass on Monday while one man wept uncontrollably amid the debris.

Outside St. Theresa Catholic Church, crowds gathered among the burned-out cars in the dirt parking lot, angry over the attack claimed by a radical Muslim sect and fearful that the group will target more churches.

Rev. Father Christopher Jataudarde told The Associated Press that Sunday’s blast happened as church officials gave parishioners white powder as part of a tradition celebrating the birth of Christ.

Some already had left the church at the time of the bombing, causing the massive casualties. In the chaos after the bombing, Jataudarde said one mortally wounded man, cradling his shredded stomach, begged him for religious atonement.

“Father, pray for me, I will not survive,” the man said, according to the priest.

At least 52 people were wounded in the attack, said Slaku Luguard, a coordinator with Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency. Victims filled the cement floors of a nearby government hospital, some crying in pools of their own blood.

On Christmas, attacks by the radical Muslim sect left 39 dead across Africa’s most populous nation. A bomb also exploded amid gunfire in the central Nigeria city of Jos and a suicide car bomber attacked the military in the nation’s northeast.

After the bombings, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed responsibility for the attacks in an interview with The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record across Nigeria’s Muslim north. The sect has used the newspaper in the past to communicate with public.

“There will never be peace until our demands are met,” the newspaper quoted the spokesman as saying. “We want all our brothers who have been incarcerated to be released; we want full implementation of the Sharia system and we want democracy and the constitution to be suspended.”

Boko Haram has carried out increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. The group, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the local Hausa language, is responsible for at least 504 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.

This Christmas attack comes a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded. The group also claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria’s capital Abuja that killed 24 people and wounded 116 others.

While initially targeting enemies via hit-and-run assassinations from the back of motorbikes after the 2009 riot, violence by Boko Haram now has a new sophistication and apparent planning that includes high-profile attacks with greater casualties.

That has fueled speculation about the group’s ties as it has splintered into at least three different factions, diplomats and security sources say. They say the more extreme wing of the sect maintains contact with terror groups in North Africa and Somalia.

Targeting Boko Haram has remained difficult, as sect members are scattered throughout northern Nigeria and the nearby countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Analysts say political considerations also likely play a part in the country’s thus-far muted response: President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, may be hesitant to use force in the nation’s predominantly Muslim north.

Speaking late Sunday at a prayer service, Jonathan described the bombing as an “ugly incident.”

“There is no reason for these kind of dastardly acts,” the president said in a ceremony aired by the state-run Nigerian Television Authority. “It’s one of the burdens as a nation we have to carry. We believe it will not last forever.”

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