KANO & MADALLA, Nigeria - An African terror group linked to al Qaeda has declared war on Nigeria's Christians.
Islamic fighters have killed scores in multiple attacks on Christian homes and churches. There have been calls for revenge, but also for forgiveness.
Madalla Christmas Massacre
"It was a beautiful day. We came to church to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ," worshipper Uche Bonaventure said.
"People started coming as early as six o'clock in the morning. It was going to be a joyous occasion," recalled Father Issac Achi, at St. Theresa's Catholic Church in Madellah
But it never turned out that way.
"It was five or ten minutes after the first service and suddenly this boom!" Bonaventure remembered.
A suicide bomber in a vehicle packed with explosives drove up a busy street and stopped in front of the church. Bonaventure and his 17-month-old son had just walked out the church's front doors when the bomb exploded.
"The explosion threw me on this side and my son was hurled across the other side. Around me I could see bodies on fire," he told CBN News.
Within minutes husbands became widowers, wives became widows, children became orphans and parents were childless.
The suicide bomber knew exactly when to strike. It was shortly after 8 a.m. on Christmas morning, December 25 2011, as one service was ending and the next one was just about to begin.
Twenty-six of the 44 people who died that day attended St. Theresa's church.
Praying for your Enemy
"The people who carried out this attack are under the influence of the devil. They have only evil in their heart and they want to divide us," Achi told CBN News.
The radical Muslim group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for this attack and several other attacks in various parts of Nigeria last Christmas Day.
The group's goal is to turn Africa's most populous nation into an Islamic country ruled by Sharia law.
"I am very angry at them," Bonaventure said. "We didn't do anything to deserve this. But if they are trying to get me to respond out of anger, I will not."
He and his son spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from third-degree burns. Today you'll find him and his family praying for their attackers.
"I want God to touch their hearts so that they will know that what they are doing is not good," he said.
The same sentiment also echoed in Achi's sermons about the importance of forgiveness.
"I have personally forgiven them, but what I need from Boko Haram is that they should repent and stop doing this evil work and confess," Achi said.
Boko Haram's Rampage
The attacks, however, aren't likely to end soon. In January alone, Boko Haram struck 21 times, killing more than 250 people.
Almost 1,000 have died in recent months in multiple terror attacks around the country.
Two hundred miles north of St. Theresa's church Ester Garba remembers her dedicated husband who was killed in a bomb attack.
"So many people loved my husband. He loved to share the gospel with others," she said.
Isaac Kure's father was killed in the same attack.
"They would not let me see my father's body. He was beyond recognition," he said.
Margaret Frames' husband was also one of the victims of an attack by the radical Islamic group.
"He was shot in the mouth, in the elbow, and in the back. I have not slept very well since that day," she told CBN News.
Salametu Joshua's husband was also among those who were murdered.
"I am asking God to bring peace to our city," she explained.
Christians are blanketing northern Nigeria's most important city of Kano with prayer. On Jan. 20, 26 days after the Christmas Day massacre, Boko Haram killed 185 people in a string of coordinated attacks in Kano. It was the group's deadliest strike to date.
"I can't do anything to bring my husband back," Frames told CBN News. "All I can do is trust in God. The Bible says we should love our enemies and pray for them."
A Boko Haram spokesman has declared war on Nigeria's government, the security services, and the country's Christians.
"I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams," the spokesman said in a video released online.
In January the group gave Christians three days to leave the north or be attacked.
Christians living in the state of Kano are terrified. Many of them are beginning to consider the idea of leaving the state and moving south.
CBN News spoke to some of them who are very fearful and concerned that the security apparatus is not in a position to protect them, to protect their lives, to protect their homes, as well as their churches.
Nigeria is evenly split between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north. Kano is overwhelmingly Muslim. Extremist groups routinely use the city and surrounding areas as a base of operation.
"It is very difficult to share the gospel here in the extreme northern parts of Nigeria. Kano is no exception," one Nigerian evangelist told CBN News.
"Joshua" works quietly as an evangelist in northern Nigeria. CBN News agreed to conceal his identity to protect him.
He said the indigenous people consider Christians here as invaders and members of a Western religion.
"I was born and raised here. I'm part of the north, yet because I'm a Christian I am viewed and treated as a 2nd, 3rd or 4th class citizen," he explained.
He said he fears Boko Haram is trying to spark a religious war by provoking Christians into attacking Muslims.
Some Christian neighborhoods are taking measures to defend themselves. Others like Garba are relying on God for protection and take comfort in His Word.
"Even when I walk through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid for you are close beside me," Garba said as she read from her favorite Bible verse.
--Originally published February 27, 2012.