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Nigeria's Religious Leaders Work to Stop Violence

  • Anne Look

KADUNA, Nigeria - Sectarian violence in Nigeria's volatile Middle Belt region has killed hundreds in recent years, and many fear that attacks by Islamic extremists in the north could ignite lingering tensions. However, Muslim and Christian religious leaders in the northern city of Kaduna are coming together to head off violence.

Kaduna, much like the Nigerian state itself, is divided into a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. In April 2011, post-election riots in Kaduna state descended into religious violence that left almost 700 people dead. Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, had defeated a northern Muslim opposition figure for the presidency. There were allegations of vote rigging. Muslims attacked Christians, whom they believed had supported the winning candidate. Christians retaliated against Muslims in southern Kaduna state.

More than a year later, 1,200 Muslim refugees are still living at this camp site in Kaduna city. They are mostly women and children, since many of the men were killed.

Binta Usman says a mob attacked her and her son in Zonkwa village. They doused him in gasoline and set him on fire.

"I will never show any good things to a Christian again. I will never be happy with any Christians. I will continue having an angry, sad mind with a Christian person," said Usman.

Yet, religious leaders say progress is being made. Kaduna's Interfaith Mediation Center says two million viewers tune in for its weekly talk show. In a recent edition Imam Muhammed Ashafa, focused on the sanctity of human life.

"It is unacceptable in Islam. You can never commit an atrocity. Anyone who would kill a non-Muslim, or even kill an animal, he will never enter paradise," said Ashafa. "That is the teaching of Islam."

Imam Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye have collaborated on conflict prevention for more than a decade.

Pastor Wuye said death tolls have been celebrated like points in a sporting match.

"It is not a game. It is an issue of forgiveness so we should stop it where it is now. Let's not say we must retaliate before it stops because when we retaliate, some will retaliate again and the cycle of violence will continue, God forbid, forever," said Wuye.

Unemployment in the area opens the youth up to becoming hoodlums-for-hire, but after last year's violence, young men like Francis Frank say they are wising up to being used by the political elite.

"There is a kind of consensus," said Frank. "When the thing happened, when the youths now find out that, man, we are killing ourselves and these people are up there enjoying themselves."

Muslim and Christian youth groups in Kaduna have joined forces, and have succeeded in calming tensions when problems arise.

When a car bomb exploded on a Kaduna street on Easter Sunday, killing 40 people, rumors circulated that nearby churches had been the intended target. Tempers began to rise.

A Christian youth leader at the scene went on local media to set the record straight.

Most of the victims that day were Muslim. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing and the violence stopped there. There were no reprisals that day from either side.

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