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In Northern Nigeria, Interreligious Peacemaking Precedes Development


Development can not take place without peace. That’s the view of economists and analysts who’ve been watching developments from Bosnia to Iraq. It’s also true of Nigeria, the site of occasional violence between Muslims and Christians, especially in the northern and central parts of the country. Here, the two religious have co-existed – and sometimes competed – for over a century.

That’s why a Pentecostal preacher and a Muslim imam came together to try to reduce conflict. From their hometown, Kaduna, reporter Isiyaku Ahmed describes the relationship between two men who believe religious peace and cooperation are a prerequisite to sustained economic growth.

For decades, religious strife between Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria has claimed property and lives. Recurring flare-ups between members of each group have left thousands dead, wounded, and homeless over the years.

The violence contributes to political instability, which in turn deters development. For example, providers of essential services have often been Christian migrants from the south and east of the country. But many of them have fled the area, or avoid settling there out of fear of violence. The same applies to foreign investors.

But two leading religious leaders in the region -- Rev. James Movel Wuye, a Pentecostal Christian, and his counterpart, Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, a Muslim – are doing something about it. They’re using inter-faith mediation help resolve the religious and politically motivated conflicts that have often kept resource-rich Nigeria from reaching its potential. They’ve also created two organizations for resolving inter-religious conflict in Nigeria -- the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum and the Inter-Faith Mediation Centre.

FIGHTING AND RECONCILIATION

Rev. Wuye says it was a particularly violent clash in the northern town of Zangon-Kataf in 1992 that brought the two together. In that incident, the mostly Muslim Hausa and the predominantly Christian Kataf ethnic group, fought pitched battles in a dispute over the relocation of the community’s main market. From there, killings spread to other parts of Kaduna State.

Muslims fighters killed Rev. Wuye’s bodyguard and cut off the reverend’s right arm, leaving him for dead. At the same time, Christian fighters murdered a man known as Ashafa’s mentor and spiritual leader. Both men took the events as a sign from God to collaborate as peacemakers.

Rev. Wuye’s initial reaction at the time wasn’t so different from that of other fighters -- vengeance. In particular, he wanted to kill Imam Ashafa, one of the leaders of the Muslim militias. That may well have happened, had he not been for the sermon of a preacher.

"For three years I nursed the ambition of killing Imam Ashafa," he said, "But then, I attended a program aimed at preaching the gospel to non-Christians, and there I was told by the moderator, [who] said you cannot preach Jesus Christ with hate. Then, it reawakened my conscience. [I realized] that as a Christian, I need to love even when I feel pain."

Imam Ashafa heard similar words on forgiveness in his mosque as well. He then went to visit Rev Wuye’s sick mother in the hospital.

The two men finally met in 1995 at the urging of a civil leader. They agreed to work out some sort of dialogue promoting mutual understanding and respect.

Imam Ashafa proposed a public debate, which evolved into a forum on the concepts of salvation and forgiveness in Christianity and Islam. It took a year to arrange the event and find a venue willing to host two militant youth groups from different religions. "People came with daggers in their pockets that day." Rev. Wuye told the press. "Both parties came prepared for the worst."

But there was no violence – the forum was a success, and since then, the two men have backed a series of interventions and workshops focusing on the groups peace-making verses from the two faiths. They include the a verse from the book of Matthew in the Bible “In everything, do unto others what you would have them do to you.” And for Muslims, the fortieth Hadith (an-Nawahi, 13):, or sayings of the Prophet from the Koran: “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”

The effort is focused on enlightening the public – in particular, militant youth, vigilantes and the hizbah, or religious police who enforce Islamic law, or Sharia, in some northern states.

They've also produced a weekly series on local television, quoting passages of the Koran and the Bible that show common ground between Islam and Christianity.

THE PEACE STRATEGY

To prevent religious crises, Rev. Wuye and his partner Mallam Ashafa have developed a multi-pronged approach that they say is both preventive and curative.

For prevention, they use an early warning mechanism that alerts the community to trouble signs and ways to control a contentious situation before it spreads. The mechanism includes improved connections between government security officers, community leaders and others involved in calming a violent situation.

They also work to achieve signed peace agreements between prominent religious leaders and state or local government. The effort includes working with violent youths through Christian and Islamic teachings that emphasize forgiveness and non-violence.

Imam Ashafa says Islam is at the heart of forgiveness. He says learning how to engage in peace comes when one submits to a higher power, the ultimate truth. The Imam says Islam presents its followers with free choice. But he says he favors what he calls the more “courageous” choice, which involves positive thinking and forgiveness, even when angry.

Ashafa told a follower that “[faith] is the strongest nuclear weapon. You can use religion and spirituality to reconstruct the world.” He suggests that the UN work with religious leaders to get involved in the peace process. And he condemns those who use religion to justify atrocities.

Ashafa says he’s a fundamentalist at heart, but rejects the extremism connected with fundamentalism. He says the attitude “if you are not with me, you are against me” is wrong and leads to disrespect for other cultures and traditions.

He cites passages of the Muslim Holy Book, the Koran which support respect for other cultures and religions. For example, chapter 49 of the Koran states “O mankind, We created you from a single male and female. And made you into nations and tribes, that you many know each other….” He says the Prophet said in his farewell message “An Arab is not superior over the white; neither is the white over the black, you are all from Adam and Adam is from dust.….”

Both men say forgiveness includes mediation and a time for offenders to reflect on their actions before being given an opportunity to make amends. If no amends are made, the feuding parties can ask the state to step in.

MODELS OF RECONCILIATION

Rev. Wuye says respect for both religions is at the center of their model for reconciliation.

"Our module [looks] at the reality on the ground before passing out what is called a strategic action plan. [For] all these things we use religion to appeal to people at the end. Whatever you do in Africa or anywhere else in the world, [we] use divinity [to persuade] top people. Because of the respect for divinity and God, they abide."

The workshops and interventions have helped reduce violence.

In August 2002, Reverend Wuye and Imam Ashafa persuaded 10 senior religious leaders from each faith in Kaduna to sign a peace declaration that reduced the ongoing protests connected with the Miss World contest. Violence surged when a columnist wrote that the Prophet would likely support the pageant, an event some Muslims felt was indecent. More than 2,000 people died in the rioting that followed in Kaduna and Abuja.

In 2006, the two leaders were invited to Kenya to help solve a religious dispute. The two communities were on opposite sides over an effort to grant greater recognition to Islamic law, or Sharia, in a new Kenyan constitution. They held a high-level Christian/Muslim consultative forum in Mombassa and issued a strategic action plan for peace.

Their peace model is also in use in the predominantly Christian and animist Southern Sudan. It is rebuilding after long years of war against the largely Muslim and Arabicized north.

Rev. Wuye says both he and Imam Ashafa are encouraging greater Africa Union intervention in the genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, where government support for the “janjaweed” militias has led to the killings of hundreds of thousands of black Darfuris. “We condemn it in totality,” Rev. Wuye told VOA. “We sent an SOS message to former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to send more troops to that region, and to put pressure on the Khartoum government to behave humanely and to stop the war and all the activities that go with it.”

The two men went to Bosnia in late October to meet with religious leaders and discuss the inter-religious prejudices that led to war there in the late 1990s. The Nigerian leaders say they wanted to show that Bosnians, too, can reconcile once they talk and confront their pain.

Last year rioting began over the publication of Dutch cartoons that were seen as mocking Islam by equating it with terrorism. But Rev. Wuye asked Christian leaders to go on radio to condemn the drawings. He also asked Muslim leaders to accept the condemnation and to call for calm in their towns. As a result, the violence did not spread to some parts of the north.

Rev. Wuye discussed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda against the minority Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu. He said, “As a Christian, I felt ashamed of myself and religious colleagues who took sides during the war…. and who could have explored religious provisions to prevent the genocide or stop it.” In Rwanda, both Hutu and Tutsi are nominally Roman Catholic. Rev. Wuye and Imam Ashafa are working with the US-based NGO Search for Common Ground in Burundi to help alleviate tensions between Hutu and Tutsi there.

DANGERS

In 2004, Rev. Wuye and Imam Ashafa were threatened during their visit to Kadarko, a Christian-dominated settlement in Wase, Plateau state. They were there to help mediate a politically motivated religious dispute. The violence centered on efforts by Christians in Kadarko to strengthen local government in response to growing Muslim influence in the area.

Fighting broke out and Rev. Wuye says Christian militias would have killed them if not for the intervention of a solder who acted as a human shield to protect them.

THE FUTURE

The two religious leaders have trained four other Christian and Islamic religious leaders in Nigeria to help with mediation efforts. They are based at the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum, which has offices in Kaduna, Jos, Oweri and Lagos.

The Kaduna-based Interfaith Mediation Centre also is also encouraging joint ventures between Muslim and Christian communities. Some of the projects including rice milling, groundnut oil processing, strawberry farming, and potential economic ventures that would bring women together.

Rev. Wuye says they are working to set up an inter faith-mediation structure among Nigerian living overseas.

Rev. Wuye told VOA, “We know even among Nigerians living [abroad], they sometimes align [themselves] along sectional, geographic, and religious divides. The unity for Nigeria in the Diaspora will help our work tremendously and with their collaboration, we can gain more ground.

"[After training others],' he said, "we intend to reduce our activity to maybe [create a] consultancy, while younger generations continue [our task]. We are looking for support to complete our "Peace Village" on 14 hectares of land, and our Interfaith Peace Institute. In the next 20 years, we [hope we] will have replicated [our efforts] in Africa and in other parts of the world. [We hope to influence] the United Nations and also set up such structures in the Commonwealth of Nations."

In recognition of their work, the two men have been given a number of awards: the Peace Activist Award of the New York-based Tanenbaum center for interreligious understanding, the Heroes of Peace Award by Burundi, and the Apostle of Peace Award by the Catholic Youth Organization of Nigeria. They are also fellows of the Washington-based Ashoka program, which recognizes what it calls social entrepreneurs, those who come up with innovative solutions to help improve the lives of millions of people.

The two men say their years of dialogue have helped them gain respect for each other and overcome misconceptions. Among their differences: Imam Ashafa questioned why his companion worships Jesus as if he were the Divine, rather than “merely” a messenger for the Divine. Reverend Wuye says he’s perplexed about his friend’s five a.m. prayers. But the two leaders say they’re brothers and can joke about some of the differences that used to divide them. Criticism and commentary is kept on a friendly level, one that would not divide a family, much yet a country.

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