MADALLA, Nigeria (AP) — Women returned to clean the blood from St. Theresa Catholic Church on Monday and one man wept uncontrollably amid its debris as a Nigerian Christian association demanded protection for its churches.
At least 35 people died at St. Theresa and dozens more were wounded as radical Muslim militants launched coordinated attacks across Africa’s most populous nation within hours of one another. Four more people were killed in other violence blamed on the group known as Boko Haram.
Crowds gathered among the burned-out cars in the church’s dirt parking lot Monday, angry over the attack and fearful that the group will target more of their places of worship.
It was the second year in a row that the extremists seeking to install Islamic Shariah law across the country of 160 million staged such attacks. Last year, a series of bombings on Christmas Eve killed 32 people in Nigeria.
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 ensuing chaos, a mortally wounded man had cradled his wounded stomach and begged a priest for religious atonement. “Father, pray for me. I will not survive,” he said.
At least 52 people were wounded in the blast, 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.
Pope Benedict XVI denounced the bombing at his post-Christmas blessing Monday, urging people to pray for the victims and Nigeria’s Christian community.
“In this moment, I want to repeat once again with force: Violence is a path that leads only to pain, destruction and death. Respect, reconciliation and love are the only path to peace,” he said.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the attacks “in the strongest terms” and called for the perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors “of these reprehensible acts” to be brought to justice.
The African Union also condemned the attacks and pledged to support Nigeria in its fight against terrorism.
“Boko Haram’s continued acts of terror and cruelty and absolute disregard for human life cannot be justified by any religion or faith,” said a statement attributed to AU commission chairman Jean Ping.
On Sunday, 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. Three people died in those assaults.
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 the 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. 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.
Last year, 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 have played 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.”
However, others don’t remain as sure as the president. The northern state section of the powerful Christian Association of Nigeria issued a statement late Monday night demanding government protection for its churches, warning that “the situation may degenerate to a religious war.”
“We shall henceforth in the midst of these provocations and wanton destruction of innocent lives and property be compelled to make our own efforts and arrangements to protect the lives of innocent Christians and peace loving citizens of this country,” the statement read.
“We are therefore calling on all Christians to be law abiding but defend themselves whenever the need arises.”