Nigerian officials scrambled to calm religious tensions after Muslims in Kano state on Thursday (June 2) killed a Christian pastor's wife on a baseless "blasphemy" charge, according to reports.
Bridget Agbahime, a kitchen utensil vendor at Kano city's Kofar Wambai Market, asked a Muslim engaged in ritual Islamic cleansing, identified as Alhaji Dauda, to move his ritual from her shopfront. She had had similar conflicts with the suspect.
On this occasion she politely asked him to move the ritual to a corner as she still had customers at the end of the work day, according to online reports. Dauda became upset but left after a crowd began to gather.
The National Helm reported that Agbahime and her husband, pastor Mike Agbahime of Deeper Life Bible Church in Kano, were later meeting with the market landlord about the persistent problem when Dauda and other Muslims returned and began chanting that she must die for blasphemy. The landlord pleaded for them to return later to talk about it, but they began stoning him, and he fled.
Shouting the jihadist chant "Allahu Akbar," Dauda and the mob accused Agbahime of blasphemy against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, according to online news portal Ndibe.org. Pastor Agbahime tried in vain to protect her. The assailants overpowered the few policemen present, and Agbahime knelt and began to pray before she was beaten and clubbed to death, the National Helm reported, based on an interview with Pastor Agbahime.
The mob killed her before the arrival of the reinforcements that saved the pastor from being killed as well, according to online reports. Pastor Agbahime was said to have denied reports that the mob beheaded his wife.
"The murder of Bridget was planned and executed by these Muslims at the Kofar Wambai Market without any provocation," a person identified as Odechukwu, claiming to be a native of Agbahime's area in her native Imo state, in southern Nigeria, posted on Hope for Nigeria, which describes itself as Nigeria's first Facebook community page. "She did not blaspheme their prophet or have any argument with them as is being reported."
At a press conference on Friday (June 4), Musa Magaji Majiya, spokesman for the Kano State Police Command, confirmed the killing of the Christian woman.
"At about 4:30 p.m., there was a disagreement between the murdered woman and some traders bordering on religion," Majiya said. "The woman was said to have blasphemed prophet Muhammad, which did not go down well with the people, and they decided to take the law into their hands."
The Rev. Joseph Hayab, spokesman for the Northern Nigeria chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), issued a statement from Kaduna on Saturday (June 4) asserting that the suspect deliberately baited the murdered Agbahime.
"We got it on good authority that the slain woman never blasphemed the prophet Muhammad; that the mastermind of the killing was fond of always provoking the [now] deceased and so, on that fateful day, we learned, the said man was doing ablution in front of the woman's shop and was cautioned - that was all.
"The man raised the alarm that she blasphemed prophet Muhammad. The man deliberately provoked the woman in question just to carry out that gruesome and barbaric act. All those that perpetuated the killing of the innocent woman must be fished out and brought to book."
Hayab of CAN accused police of trying to downplay the murder.
Nigeria's national police chief, Solomon Arase, said Saturday (June 5) that two suspects had been arrested in connection with the murder. He promised swift justice and called on community leaders to help in "dousing the tensions," according to The Associated Press.
After a meeting with the Igbo community to which Agbahime belonged and with Christian and Muslim leaders on Friday (June 4), Kano Gov. Abdullahi Ganduje disclosed the arrest of suspect Dauda, according to the Nigerian newspaper The Whistler.
The killing over alleged blasphemy comes nearly five months after nine Muslims in Kano state were sentenced to death for blaspheming Muhammad. Kano state adopted sharia (Islamic law) in 2000, applying both civil and criminal Islamic law to Muslims, so that blasphemy can be punishable by death. Sharia is not meant to apply to non-Muslims in northern Nigeria, but the sentencing in Kano earlier this year is said to have emboldened Islamist vigilantes.
Kano is one of 12 northern states of Nigeria where sharia is in force in whole or in part.
The killing also comes at a time when the country's National Assembly is considering expanding the jurisdiction of Nigeria's sharia courts of appeal. The constitution limits sharia appellate courts to matters concerning family law, and the proposed changes would permit them to address criminal cases from lower sharia courts. Christians fear it could lead to Islamizing Nigeria.
Agbahime's death marks the second time that a Christian has been killed on claims of blasphemy in Kano. In 1995, Muslims beheaded Gideon Akaluka was after a mob accused him of blasphemy.
Along with the Muslim governor of Kano, Sheikh Abdulwahab Abdalla of the state Council of Ulamas condemned the murder.
The governor made his statement after meeting with Islamic scholars, CAN executives, leaders of different ethnic groups and Pastor Agbahime on Friday night (June 4). State CAN Chairman Bishop Ransome Bello said the chapter was satisfied with resolutions adopted at the meeting, but the northern chapter's Hayab reportedly said police are not doing enough to protect Christians and warned of a "looming religious crisis."
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, through a statement by spokesperson Femi Adesina, described the killing as "sad and regrettable" and prayed that God would give Pastor Agbahime and other relatives the fortitude to bear the loss. He said justice would be done and urged people not to take the law into their hands.
Separately, a press statement from the Nigerian army said officers have intelligence that militants are planning to stage attacks on places of worship during the Islamic month of Ramadan, which starts today (June 5) in Nigeria.
Christians make up 51.3 percent of Nigeria's population of 158.2 million and live mainly in the south, while Muslims account for 45 percent and live mainly in the north.