Ever since the end of the military dictatorship in Nigeria in 1999 there have been repeated clashes between the country's Christians and Muslims. But now, as Gregg Benzow explains, a Christian pastor and a Muslim Imam have launched an effort to get the two sides talking
In Nigeria, religion represents about half the populace, whereby the north is predominately Muslim and the south predominately Christian. Human rights groups estimate that about 10,000 people have died in religiously motivated violence over the last six years.
One of the key issues in Nigeria's religious debate is the application of strict Islamic religious law, the Sharia, in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna. Two men, once bitter enemies active in militant organizations, have now joined hands to promote religious tolerance and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians.
Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and the Reverend James Wuye founded their group "The Interfaith Mediation Center" in 1995 and were recently in Germany to receive the Peace Prize of the City of Bremen.
Creating a bridge over Nigeria's troubled waters
In Kaduna, where the organization is based, there are nearly as many Christians as Moslems and the two sides vehemently clash over the region's limited economic resources and distribution of power. Imam Ashafa and Reverend Wuye work to defuse the disputes to avoid the disastrous consequences of religious violence.
In the past they fought against each other, each defending the ethnic and religious turf of their respective groups. Imam Ashafa is proud to have overcome that phase in his life: "We used to be militant activists," Ashafa says, "but now we work together to generate the conditions for a peaceful dialogue and transformation of society."
The Imam's former rival, Reverend Wuye, is also relieved to be working in a constructive partnership: "We were brainwashed to be close-minded enemies full of hate," Wuye says, "back then, we were bent on either Christianizing or Islamicizing the population. That attitude, however, threatened the very existence of Nigeria as an independent, united country."
The power of reconciliation
Both men know how cruel that conflict has been. Reverend Wuye lost his mother, and his right arm was hacked off by a machete-wielding Muslim. Imam Ashafa lost two brothers and his religious teacher in 2001. Both men were victims of a conflict they had propagated, says the Imam.
"But what motivated us to turn hate into love and revenge into reconciliation," Ashafa asks. "Deep in our hearts we were weeping then and yet we were full of hate."
The turning point came for Imam Ashafa during Friday prayers. Another preacher was talking about the power of reconciliation and following the example of the prophet Mohammed. It deeply moved him and he went out in search of a different path.
That journey took longer for Reverend Wuye, but it was his own tragic situation that finally showed him the way. It all began when Imam Ashafa came to visit when Wuye's mother died. "He was full of love, but I was still blinded by hate and pain," Wuye says.
But it was this meeting that showed him the need for reconciliation. Two men - two rivals - became friends and chose their common path: to promote interfaith understanding in Nigeria. They admit that the work is difficult on both sides. The biggest barrier to peace, they say, is the ignorance both religious groups have about the other.
© DEUTSCHE WELLE/ DW-WORLD.DE 2005