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Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Gambia’s New Sharia-Friendly Constitution Fails. But Christians Are Still Concerned.

Chatham House: Shaping The Gambia’s Future: How to Build a Path to Sustainable Progress, President Adama Barrow, 18 April 2018, cht.hm/2JZwqH0

The Gambia almost had a new constitution.

Instead, the English-speaking, sliver-shaped West African river nation—known for Muslim-Christian coexistence—will return to the 1997 constitution instituted by former dictator Yahya Jammeh and amended by him more than 50 times to entrench his power.

One year before being deposed in 2016 by popular protests, Jammeh declared Gambia to be an Islamic state.

The new draft constitution would have imposed term limits on the president, guaranteed religious freedom, and forbidden any future declaration of a state religion.

Muslims comprise more than 9 in 10 Gambians, totaling 2 million. Lamin Sanneh, the Muslim-born Gambian theologian who died last year, praised his nation’s participation in a tradition of “pacifist Islam.”

Yet many of the nation’s Christians, who comprise only about 5 percent of the population, still feel like they dodged a bullet.

“Truly important positive changes were made in this [draft] constitution,” said Begay Jabang, a member of the Gambia Christian Council (GCC) campaign team, naming the separation of powers and the strengthening of the legislature. “This would have been a significant step forward given the history of our nation.

“But at the same time,” she said, “provisions were introduced in the judiciary that would have changed the face of our nation, moving it down the path of an Islamic state as Jammeh did before.”

The official GCC statement outlined the changes in detail, and was blunt in its assessment. “The deafening silence…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 12, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Should Christians Join Burkina Faso’s Militias Against Terrorism?

US Army Africa (link)

What should Christians do when their government cannot protect them from terrorism? As the world’s first post-coronavirus coup shakes Mali, nearby Burkina Faso is experimenting with a controversial lesson in self-defense.

To gain perspective on Burkina Faso, CT interviewed Joanna Ilboudo, secretary-general for ACTS Burkina, a nonprofit Christian association dedicated to helping the nation’s widows and orphans without religious distinction. She in turn took the pulse of local Christian leaders and laity on behalf of CT.

Located in West Africa’s volatile Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, the Colorado-sized Francophone country of 20 million had been home to one of the continent’s model nations for peaceful coexistence. Around 60 ethnic groups divide the population religiously into 61-percent Muslim, 19-percent Catholic, 4-percent Protestant, and 15-percent indigenous beliefs.

Muslims are located primarily in the north, east, and west border areas, with Christians located in the south and central areas. But schools are mixed and intermarriage is common, while 80 percent of the population works in farming.

Jihadist groups began attacking Burkina Faso in 2015, following the popular removal of a president in power for 27 years. The transitional government ended his policy of allowing terrorists to harass neighboring Mali from across the border.

Three jihadist groups proliferate, one affiliated with al-Qaeda, and have targeted grain fields and the educational system. But according to reports, only the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)—which has wreaked havoc in Nigeria—has specifically targeted Christian communities.

CT has repeatedly reported on the escalating church attacks.

Ilboudo’s ministry, whose French acronym translates to “Christian Action, All for Solidarity,” is another means to help the ever-increasing victims.

To gather Christian perspective on the government’s militia initiative, she interviewed a well-known theologian teaching in the largest theological college in Burkina Faso; a member of the national Assemblies of God executive board; a lawyer working with international diplomats; and a social worker in the field of education. She also conducted five focus group conversations, one specifically of women and another of youth this past spring.

The Burkina Faso government has approved a plan to arm civilians to fight terrorist groups. Please explain the basics.

Following the approval of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, the groups to be formed are called Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland. Their mission is to contribute, when necessary and requested by the army, to the defense and protection of populations in the villages.

The law specifies that individual volunteers must obtain the approval of the local population in general assembly. It requires their patriotism, loyalty, discipline, neutrality, integrity, and sacrifice, even unto death.

What are the hopes for results, and are they achievable?

Without volunteers, the people in the villages have been taken by surprise by terrorists and unable to defend themselves. Now they are training…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 30, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Zimbabwe Evangelicals Defend Catholics from Government’s ‘Genocide’ Accusations

Never Muparutsa

Zimbabwe, in its 40 years of independent history, has “never enjoyed life.”

And as the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ) stands in solidarity this week with maligned Catholic bishops accused of fomenting genocide, its president, Never Muparutsa, told CT the Southern African government is failing to honor its biblical responsibility.

There are too many poor, amid official repression.

An excerpt from the interview:

On June 1, we called for 90 days of prayer. On the 15th day, the president called for a national day of prayer, and we supported him. We don’t necessarily blame the president for all the problems, but there is a lack of leadership to bring everyone to the table.

And this is why you stood with the Catholics?

The Catholic letter was trying to provoke discussion, not give an insult. It pointed out problems like all of us were doing. But it received such a strong backlash.

We felt that given the situation in the country, if we just stand by and watch, we don’t know what will happen. We have journalists and activists in prison. There have been abductions with perpetrators unidentified, making us all vulnerable.

So this prompted us to stand with the Catholics, because an insult to one is an insult to all.

The 90 days of prayer will end on August 29. What are your hopes for Zimbabwe, in how God might move on behalf of the church and country?

We need a better future. We have suffered enough over 40 years, having never really enjoyed life. Zimbabwe has been given many natural resources and riches, and if our leaders are gifted enough, they can exploit these for the benefit of the people.

We are praying that the church will raise up disciples, who in the future will be good politicians. We blame ourselves. We have what we deserve, because we have not done a good job.

We want God to help us achieve the Zimbabwe we want, with freedom of speech, access to the wealth of the nation, and an uprooting of corruption.

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 24, 2020. Please click here for the full text.

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Africa Lapido Media Published Articles

Ethiopia’s First Africa-Trained Pediatric Surgeon Gives Children a Glimmer of Hope

From my latest article in Lapido Media:

Surgeons

If not for Frehun Ayele, Fatima would still be wet with urine. The eleven-year-old native of war-torn Somalia traveled over 500 kilometers to Addis Ababa for an operation on her bladder, which was completely open to the skin since birth.

‘For children in need of surgery, it is a big challenge,’ Dr. Frehun told Lapido Media, describing waiting lists of over a year. ‘The most vulnerable in terms of disease severity, poverty, and distance, suffer much. Only the fittest survive.’

Frehun is unique as the first Ethiopian to be trained as a pediatric surgeon in Africa. Three months ago he halved the waiting list by opening the nation’s second pediatric surgery clinic, BethanyKids, in cooperation with the Korean-founded Myungsung Christian Medical Hospital.

‘Before the arrival of BethanyKids, there were three pediatric surgeons for over ninety million people,’ said Dr. Dan Poenaru, Frehun’s training surgeon and now partner in the clinic.

This was a very fun article to write. It was also a challenge, done remotely, relying on email. Many thanks to the people of PAACS for helping. PAACS, by the way, stands for the Pan-African Association of Christian Surgeons:

an organization dedicated to the training and discipling of African surgeons to provide excellent, compassionate care to those most in need.

Their work is for the good of the continent and all its religious adherents, but a very clear commitment to Jesus is part of their methodology, one which they believe makes all the difference:

Gray helped arrange the exchange of residents with the national training center in Addis Ababa University, which is open to students of all faiths. But according to Dr. Bruce Steffes, the executive director of PAACS, it may have been the organization’s Christian commitment which made the difference.

Speaking with a particular government minister who was suspicious of the missionaries, Steffes pointed out all twenty-eight PAACS graduates were serving in their local context, often in rural areas.

‘I may have influenced his decision,’ he said, ‘by pointing out that their desire to serve Jesus is what motivates them to serve in those areas.’

By contrast:

‘Many of the brightest and best medical students leave for training abroad, but after five years of training put down roots and stay there,’ he said.

Thompson said there is a greater than ninety percent attrition rate, a significant brain drain costing Africa the surgeons it needs. Even for those who do return, he says, most cannot function for more than a few years, as they were trained in ideal conditions in the West.

‘We train them in these resource poor environments,’ Thompson said, ‘so they know how to operate here.’

Please click here to read the entire article on Lapido Media, and have a look at the PAACS website as well. Do consider them for your support.

PAACS

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Africa Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Early Warning and Early Response Training in Cairo and Alexandria

Imam Mohamed Ashafa describing Alternative Dispute Resolution

Disagreements abound in every society. Properly handled, they result in consensus, healthy competition, and increased understanding between diverse groups. Improperly handled, they result in tension, conflict, and civil discord. If religious overtones come to characterize the disagreements, the effect can be even more troublesome. This negative description came to characterize relations in Nigeria, in which Muslims and Christians descended into rioting and violence in response to claimed affronts, both material and religious. Yet within this environment two leaders, Imam Mohamed Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, were able to overcome their own differences, forgive each other, and work together for peace.

While the Nigerian reality does not resemble the situation in Egypt, Ashafa and Wuye have developed techniques useful in addressing disagreements in any society. Beyond the power of their personal testimony – Wuye had his right hand chopped off in militia fighting, while Ashafa’s spiritual teacher was murdered by such militias – they are able to enter diverse locations, share the tools of their peacemaking efforts, and leave practical application to the nation’s citizens. Disagreements exist in Egypt, as they exist everywhere. It is the hope of Ashafa and Wuye that Early Warning and Early Response (EWER) Training will prevent disagreements in Egypt from deteriorating into outright conflict.

It is in this spirit that the Center for Arab West Understanding, an Egyptian NGO, invited Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye to conduct two workshops in Egypt, in collaboration with Initiatives of Change in the UK and its Egyptian sister organization, the Moral Rearmament Association. The first workshop was in Alexandria, June 13-14, hosted by the Alexandria Intercultural Dialogue Committee. The second workshop was in Cairo, June 15-16, hosted by the Center for Arab-West Understanding and the Goethe Institute. Over sixty people received training at these locations.

Introduction

Ashafa and Wuye repeated the same training course in both Alexandria and Cairo. They began with a description of alternative dispute resolution stages, seeking to emphasize the need for Early Warning and Early Response in effort to head off the more damaging stages as conflict escalates. They then proceeded to describe Conflict Mapping Tools, which are useful in breaking down a disagreement into manageable parts which divest it of the emotional fervor so often preventing understanding and agreement. Along these lines, they helped each person gauge his or her readiness to participate in the process through self-evaluation along different Levels of Identity and the Ladder of Tolerance.

Ashafa and Wuye then moved directly into the concept of Early Warning and Early Response, describing it as a systematic collection and categorization of social indicators, in order to anticipate and prevent escalation of problems. They spoke of the Cyclone of Conflict, describing why it is best to intervene early. They also encouraged efforts to engender EWER, to include all segments of society. They led participants in outlining the structures of EWER unique to Egypt, and concluded by getting participants to self-organize into an EWER Committee. Each of their training techniques will be described below.

Following the summary of their presentation will be examples of interaction the participants had with the ideas of EWER as presented by Ashafa and Wuye. In both questions and breakout groups Egyptian applications were sought by those in attendance. Finally, to close the report, testimonials from the participants will be listed, highlighting the chief gains and areas for improvement for any coming workshops.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

The importance of an Early Warning and Early Response system is clear when one considers the natural progression of conflict. Initially, all disagreements are dealt with in the communication stage, in which matters are discussed rationally and on friendly terms. Only slightly more complicating is the collaboration stage, in which parties admit the presence of an issue to solve together, and then seek win-win scenarios all can agree to willingly.

If this effort breaks down, parties enter the negotiation stage. At this level things are still friendly, but now each side must consider what must be given up in order to reach an agreement. Win-win is still a possibility, but in all likelihood it involves some loss.

Should the losses become unbearable, the next stage involves mediation. The disputants call on the assistance of a mutually acceptable third party to help them work through the issue. If necessary, this can develop into a hybrid mediation/arbitration stage, in which the parties agree to be bound by his or her decision. While this may solve the issue, should the ruling fail to satisfy one or both parties, they enter into strict arbitration in a court of law. Should that ruling fail to suffice, litigation/adjudication takes over as both sides hire lawyers to represent their interests. By now they are a long way from friendly communication and collaboration.

Unfortunately, there are stages of devolution still possible. If the court ruling fails to bring agreement, parties may seek their interest through violence or, even worse, war [this last stage does not apply to Egypt as Egypt has never entered that stage] Violence often results in neighboring parties leveling sanction against the disputants, in order to end the conflict, but which also humiliates and possibly impoverishes the two sides.

At this level, with all possible resolution strategies exhausted, the only option is for the two parties to be forced back all the way to the beginning: They must communicate. This fact reveals the near futility of ratcheting up the pressure to secure one’s interest; while solution can be found at any level, at each step more and more control is lost over the proceedings. Furthermore, more and more damage is done to the relationship between the two parties.

With this schema in mind, parties to a disagreement will realize the great importance of solving their issues in the early stages of communication and collaboration. Having now received Early Warning and Early Response training, those walking alongside them can help them to see this likely progression. By itself, it may encourage all parties to peace.

Tools for Mapping Conflict

Once the necessity of alternative dispute resolution is understood, tools are needed to move the disagreement from the level of emotion to the level of analysis. What is the issue, and what is at stake? Ashafa and Wuye led participants through four analysis methods: the Onion, the ABC Triangle, the Carpet, and the Circles.

The Onion

In order to get to the center of an onion, layer after layer must be pulled back, and the operation can be somewhat unpleasant and tear-inducing. Similarly, most problems are not immediately apparent at first glance, and there can be resistance to digging deeper.

The first level of the issue is a person’s position. This seems straightforward, but it masks the real issues. This layer must be peeled back, so that a person’s interest is revealed. Why does the individual or party state their position so? What interest are they pursuing? Even this level is not sufficient for conflict resolution, however; the essential need must be discovered. If an issue can be reduced to one’s interpretation of legitimate need, communication now proceeds on the basis of reality, not propaganda. When the need of each one is similarly identified and discussed, solutions become possible.

The ABC Triangle

The three parts of the triangle are labeled attitude, behavior, and context. The usual first look into a disagreement finds attitudes entrenched and behaviors counterproductive. Efforts to change either of these – though of worthy intention – will not succeed long term. Instead, context is at the head of this interconnected triangle. If change can be brought to the context of the issue, then the behavior of the disputants will change as well. Similarly, once behavior begins to change, hostile attitudes will also begin to give way. The key point for EWER is a matter of perspective. Resist the temptation to judge a situation by the attitudes and behavior of those involved. Analyze the context of the issue, and the others will more readily fall into place.

The Carpet

The picture of a carpet illustrates how various parties of a dispute interact. In the center of the carpet is the issue at hand, and the two disputants sit opposite each other, close to the issue. Conflict, however, is usually not isolated between two parties; others come alongside to support or oppose, with some relation to the issue in the center, though a bit farther removed from it. What drives this interaction?

Along the thread line that connects each party to the issue should be noted the interests, fears, and needs of each participant. Such analysis again serves to de-emotionalize a disagreement, but also is useful to judge the involvement of parties in alignment with the main disputants. As such mapping provides clarity to the reality underneath appearances, finding solutions becomes less difficult.

The Circles

Drawing circles is a method to connect and illustrate the various relationships amidst a disagreement. The manner of drawing signals the nature of relationship. Each circle represents a person or party, and a line between them designates a relationship exists.

The larger the circle size, the more power is held by the party encircled. An arrow between two circles illustrates the direction this power is exercised. Meanwhile, a zig-zag line signals conflict exists between the two parties, whereas a double line represents an alliance. If the line between is dotted, this shows a weak relationship, and for all lines, if an issue exists between the two parties, it is written in a box connecting the two circles.

A circle drawn with dotted lines indicates the presence of a ‘shadow’. A shadow party is not actually there in the field of the dispute, but influences surrounding relationships all the same. These can have great effect on the outcome, but can easily fail to be identified if the analysis is not objective.

Drawing circles, in addition to the other tools mentioned above, allow for all parties to achieve a description of the disagreement in terms as objective as possible. As they communicate their findings with each other, discoveries are sure to occur revealing differences of perspective. Yet within the effort to depict reality, a basis is created for finding the essential solutions that meet the needs of all involved.

Essential Self-Analysis

These tools are useless, however, in the hands of an unprepared craftsman. Yes, they can be utilized in order to help conflicting sides come to terms. But what about the bias of the to-be peacemaker employing EWER? He or she must first self-reckon on two levels. First, what is his or her understanding of self-identity, from which help is offered to others in navigating theirs? Second, what level of tolerance or intolerance does he or she harbor? Many times disagreements escalate due to conflicts in identity; without self-analysis the peacemaker may trip up.

The Levels of Identity

Ashafa and Wuye explained that the human identity is a fluid amalgamation of several relationships. Everyone negotiates these differently, and manages them according to circumstances and context. Yet if one gets stuck or overemphasizes a particular aspect of identity, it can cause conflict with the self or with others. While the order to be described should not be held as hard and fast, generally speaking, as one moves up the levels, he or she becomes better equipped to negotiate all of them.

The most basic and essential level of identity is family. One’s identity then expands to include tribe/language groupings, in which the individual moves about comfortably. Then comes the larger community group of a particular area, taking greater geographical scope in nation. In these labels it is clear to see how one conducts relationships of peace in wider and wider comfort zones, the more one’s overall identity expands.

The next levels of identity are gender, race, and profession. These bonds help one to further traverse barriers in identity, as a woman might easily take refuge in another woman, no matter the national differences. Professional bonds can do similarly. Yet while race as an identity marker can also help one broaden relational ties, it and others below can be found to divide and separate, rather than unite.

For this, the last two levels represent higher planes: Humanity and spirituality. To the degree that individuals see each other as fellow humans, rather than through defining and limiting lower identities, they are able to build bonds of peace. Spiritual identity, grounded in the paths of the great religions, also help to overcome lesser identities, uniting the individual beyond the material human nature into the fabric of the cosmos. It is at these levels the EWER peacemaker does best to ground his or her identity, granting patience for those worked with as they negotiate their essential identity level.

The Ladder of Tolerance

The Ladder of Tolerance asks the individual to consider his relation vis-à-vis the other, however defined. The relationship can issue from the fear of the unknown, driving attitudes and behavior downward toward intolerance. At a basic level this issues forth rejection, but can increase in severity producing oppression, dehumanization, murder, and genocide.

It is not likely the participants at the conference suffer from placement on the intolerant side of the ladder, but depending on the other in question, a review of their positive tolerance level is beneficial. First and foremost, an open posture toward the other results in examination of differences. As one ascends the ladder he or she is able to welcome the place of the other in acceptance. Still higher develops the posture of learning from the other, with the differences in question.

More difficult to achieve, however, is the valuing of the other. At this level one’s self identity can be challenged, threatening the comfort zone of associations lower than that of humanity. The peak step in the ladder culminates in celebration of the other, especially of all commonalities discovered. It is here that solutions to disagreement are all the easier to achieve. Getting there, however, requires work and vigilance, both internal to self and external in society.

Early Warning and Early Response

As mentioned above, Early Warning and Early Response is a systematic collection and categorization of social indicators, in order to anticipate and prevent escalation of problems. Escalation can be visually depicted through a cyclone, as early effects do not appear severe, but widens in scope and severity until all are aware of the problem. The most essential work, therefore, is to be done at the pre-conflict stage when the cyclone has not yet developed. This work can be thankless, as few people at this stage are even aware of a problem. Yet it is vital; once the cyclonic conflict is underway, many people look to help but the damage has already been done.

Ashafa and Wuye also encouraged participants to involve all segments of society into the effort to head off conflict before it explodes. Specifically, this means deliberately enrolling women in the effort. Women often suffer the most in times of conflict, and have great influence on their families, especially the young, to curb emotional, destructive tendencies. But it also means creative thinking to involve other groups as well; Wuye, having lost his hand, emphasized the role of the handicapped in keeping conflict at bay.

The Structures of EWER

Ashafa and Wuye led the participants through sessions in which they discussed their local context, trying to put their fingers on indicators that could potentially lead to conflict. The brainstorming was useful to get people thinking, but it led into a basic question: From where do you obtain your information, and to whom do you pass it on? Ashafa and Wuye emphasized the success of Early Warning and Early Response depends upon contact with sources of information, as well as contact with sources of authority. EWER is an effort to connect the two – to be a social middleman in the management of conflict.

Early Warning

The following is very basic, but unless one thinks deliberately to connect with sources of information, he or she will likely overlook vital indicators. Where does one hear about possible troubles to come? Here is the assembled list of participants: Media, the street, church and mosque, social clubs, NGOs, schools, previous research, taxi drivers, family meetings, cafés, cybercafés, public transportation, work, market, on the beach, restaurants, hospitals, conferences, jokes, the street, foreign media, posters/flyers/pamphlets, family meetings, friends, markets, SMS messages, advertising, cultural centers, and professional syndicates.

While it may be difficult for any one person to monitor all these outlets of information, this demonstrates that EWER must be a group effort. More will be described about this below, but Ashafa and Wuye emphasized that those concerned to be on the watch for early warnings of conflict must have sources in all these areas. Together, it is not difficult, for these are all normal facets of everyday life. The key is simply being connected.

As an important aside, Ashafa and Wuye also took the time to address the difference between EWER and intelligence gathering. They emphasized that intelligence is the realm of spies who work in secret, on the behest of the state and its security. EWER, however, is done openly by volunteers who work in conjunction with the state for the security of society. While there are lines not to be crossed, assurances were given this work is not illegal, especially if reported properly, as described next.

Early Response

Similarly, a list of viable outlets to inform amidst signs of conflict is also basic. While the ordinary citizen has little power or authority to curb negative indicators, he or she is connected to several community organs which do possess influence and strength. Participants listed the following possibilities: Community leaders, government, NGOs, journalists, religious leaders, God, colleagues, courts/lawyers, teachers, lobbying groups, policy makers, political leaders, specialist institutes, media, activists, businessmen, social media groups, syndicate bodies, famous people, tribal/family heads, and parents.

Again, few people can maintain active contact with such a diverse group. What is essential is that those concerned with EWER group together, comparing sources on who knows which authority. In combination, all of these groups can be covered, and must be renewed in contact at least once a month.

Thus, when trouble emerges, rumors are heard, or palpitations are sensed on the street, EWER volunteers will seek intervention through the appropriate channel. Choosing the correct channel is important, so that the one informed actually has influence to rectify a situation. If the problem is urgent then obviously all concerned citizens will contact police to pacify the situation. It is the not-quite-right scenario, however, which activates EWER in its formal sense, described next.

Central and Subcommittees

Those committed to EWER must move beyond the plane of individual awareness. Though the tools provided produce a conscientious citizen, he or she can do little alone. Instead, Ashafa and Wuye sought to give participants a group identity, asking them to divide into subcommittees from which they can monitor developments in their community.

Three subcommittees were suggested: Youth, women, and political/religious. Participants signed up based on their interest and preference, but with an eye toward their area of influence. What circles do you already inhabit, and what contacts do you already have?

Once these subcommittees become active, they should choose among their members to designate a few for participation also in the central committee. The central committee can be of variable makeup – five, seven, eleven members, etc. – but is tasked with the decision making authority for the EWER team. It is the central committee which should convey any early warning to authorities, assisting them in taking the necessary early response.

Each subcommittee is tasked with finding the spark which can ignite a fire in its community, and to put it out before damage is done. These should be people already involved on the ground, who know how to feel the ebb and flow on the street. They should be connected to local community and religious leaders, so as to be able to act quickly in times of budding tension.

Conversely, the central committee should be composed of individuals with credibility, leadership, responsibility, and experience. They should have developed contacts with higher level authority figures, to help bridge the gap that often exists between administration and the street. Information, strategy, and creative solutions should flow frequently between the subcommittees and the central committee, but decisive and official communication must be delivered by the central committee leaders.

By the conclusion of the two workshops participants were excited about their potential roles in the EWER effort. Leadership and continuity, however, were left for later development. CAWU will first submit the report of the workshop to the ruling Supreme Military Council, and will coordinate any future planning under the auspices of the proper authorities. A foundation, however, has been laid among the now-trained participants; it is for them, as concerned Egyptian citizens, to continue and enroll others in the process.

Attendees listening attentively

Egyptian Interactions

Throughout the workshops Ashafa and Wuye encouraged participants to ask questions and respond creatively to the material based on their Egyptian context. Early on they were asked about the concept of Early Warning and Early Response, and what this meant to them. Several aspects were given, both in terms of tremors that could be sensed early on, as well as structural issues requiring efforts at reform.

In terms of early warning signs, participants mentioned the presence of extremists in an area, rumors, and manipulative teaching coming from places of worship. Broader issues included poverty, unemployment, discrimination, draconian laws, lack of security, lack of transparency, and a lack of social justice. Given the latter, the early warning signs become more critical, and necessitate action.

Participants also interacted with Ashafa and Wuye over two well known Egyptian religious issues: mixed marriages and conversion. Concerning mixed marriages, they counseled simply to obey the dictates of religion, which cannot be changed, and which encourage husband and wife to be of the same faith. They did give an example from Nigeria, however, which illustrates how they worked through a tense situation.

A Christian woman married a Muslim man and converted to his religion, and they lived in peace with neighbors all their life. At the woman’s death, however, a dispute arose whether to bury her in the Muslim burial plot, as per her religion, or the Christian burial plot back in her original village, as per her tribal affiliation. The woman’s tribal family demanded the body, and Muslims of the area were also prepared to fight for it.

The issue was heated especially in that Muslim rites call for a burial within twenty-four hours, but negotiation could not resolve the issue that quickly. Ashafa and Wuye invoked the Muslim law of necessity, postponing burial until harmony could be achieved, given that the body will rest until the Day of Resurrection. In the end, after two days, an agreement was crafted to allow the tribal family its burial customs, but to also allow respect to the woman’s chosen faith, and have Muslims perform Islamic burial rites there. This decision was accepted by all, and a potential crisis was averted.

In terms of conversion, participants mentioned that especially sensitive in Egypt is the movement of a Christian into Islam. Applying the principles learned in the workshop, the Alexandria delegation decided they should divide the city into different regions, and seek wise Muslims and Christians in each who are non-political and accepted by the majority. For the neighborhood in question, then, whenever a rumor surfaces about a conversion, they wise leaders must be informed, and investigate together. Regardless of the details, they then must speak publically into the rumor, to disarm it, and promote peaceful solutions acceptable to the community.

Ashafa and Wuye allowed time during the workshop for the participants to divide into groups and discuss issues and possible EWER solutions. They were asked to especially consider Egypt as they knew it in their local environments.

One group considered the presence of a religious extremist in an area, disseminating hateful teachings. The solution was to be able to inform mainstream religious leaders about this quickly, so they could formally denounce and religiously counter such thought. Then, the media should be employed so that these moderate voices receive primacy in contradistinction to the extremist preacher, who gets discredited.

Another group considered a situation in which a threat is issued against a place of worship. Should even a rumor about this be heard, residents should quickly be assembled to create a popular committee to protect it, while security forces are contacted to also be on alert.

A third group referenced the recent trend in which some Christians have placed the sign of a fish – an ancient Christian symbol – on their cars as an expression of religious identity. They then related that some Muslims have responded by placing a shark sticker on their vehicles. While no violence has been committed, it is a worrisome sign of increased division.

This group recommended that NGOs be utilized to advance peace education, hoping to counter the drifting apart of communities. They also promoted the government use of reconciliation committees headed by recognized religious leaders, following incidents of tension. This latter solution, however, was not accepted by all, as some believe this practice only contributes to the sectarian issues of Egypt, by setting aside the rule of law necessary to punish infractions.

Another topic of discussion concerned how to work with extremist elements of society. Ashafa and Wuye spoke of two possibilities. In the first, the extremist leader is motivated by greed and/or power. In this situation there is not much that can be done with the leader himself, but instead they go to his followers, and educate them about how they are being used. They have also made local monitoring groups, so as evidence is gained about his ill motivation, it can be exposed to the people.

In the case of an extremist in sincere ideology, however, they do not move away from him. Instead, they stay in dialogue, admitting that intra-religious peace is often harder to craft than inter-religious peace. Ashafa and Wuye have been criticized as traitors by their respective religious communities, or else as compromisers who benefit from funding from the West. The majority, though silent, believes they are doing the right thing.

Another participant noted Wuye’s artificial right hand, suffered in clashes with Muslims, and wanted to know what Wuye would do if he met that individual. Wuye stated he had no idea who cut off his hand, given that the clashes were mob violence, but that if he were to meet him, he would forgive him. He stated that earlier he had hate, but that God changed him, and now he would seek to love that individual – excessive love is the means to disarm an enemy.

Along similar lines Ashafa sought to answer the best way to deal with your enemy. He stated that he no longer had enemies in this world, only friends he has yet to meet. To adopt this attitude you must break the barriers of fear and insecurity, but the best way to defeat an enemy is to turn him into a friend.

A particularly astute participant, in a different context, gave practical application to these ideas. He recommended that following any sectarian conflict, efforts should be made cross-religiously to visit the victims of violence. Others spoke positively of the Family House initiative, which aims to bring together the heads of Egypt’s various religious communities. Some, however, emphasized while love and dialogue are good, it is the rule of law and better education which must be cornerstone for diffusing interreligious tensions.

Conclusion

Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye have been successful in implementing such techniques in communities throughout Nigeria and other countries, and in some areas have curbed violence almost entirely. As they and the participants of the two workshops emphasized, Nigeria is not Egypt. Yet it should be clear from the description of the training that these are location-neutral tools which can be applied regardless of context.

Egypt has witnessed community tension since the revolution; given the breakdown of security provision it is not surprising some disagreements have sparked wider conflict. This situation helps explain the great usefulness behind EWER as a community based strategy. Egyptians have already grouped themselves into popular neighborhood communities during the revolution to protect their homes and properties. If marshaled and trained, this same spirit can provide increasing levels of cushion to keep both ordinary disagreements and targeted bigotry from escalating and dividing the citizenry. It can be a safety valve to keep authorities aware of the situation on the ground, but yet find solutions before they must become actively involved.

EWER is a tool to keep the community peace. If effective, its necessity will never be noticed. If absent, its necessity may become painfully obvious. EWER is only one tool among many, yet it is hoped the principles therein may become successfully translated to address perfectly the needs of Egypt. Nigeria is like Egypt, and like nations everywhere, in that they are filled with ordinary people, with ordinary disagreements. Though circumstances differ, the solution is common: Community cooperation keeps disagreements from becoming divisions. Early Warning and Early Response encourages this reality.

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On Nigeria and Egypt: An Interview with the Imam and the Pastor

The Imam and the Pastor

The Imam and the Pastor, Mohamed Ashafa and James Wuye, are a Nigerian Muslim and Christian who have worked tirelessly for the sake of peace and reconciliation between their countrymen. Formerly bitter enemies in armed conflict, in which Wuye lost his hand and Ashafa’s spiritual mentor was murdered, they have now forgiven each other.  Furthermore, they use both their personal example and their Early Warning and Early Response monitoring system to limit the escalation of violence, as is sadly common in Nigeria.

Though their focus is at home, the Imam and the Pastor have traveled the world, helping to solve conflict and spread their message abroad. It was in this effort they were invited to Egypt by the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU), presenting two workshops in Alexandria and Cairo.

During the Alexandria workshop they were interviewed by Salwa Uthman of Alexandria Magazine, at which CAWU was also present. The following records an important glimpse into Nigerian society, the origins of conflict, and their view on the state of Egypt, post-revolution.

Alexandria Magazine: Please give us an overview of Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria.

Wuye: During the 1980s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict greatly affected Nigeria, especially in the schools. This trend was amplified by religious leaders who would misrepresent their holy books, which then encouraged people to descend into conflict.

Recently, politicians have appropriated religion into their campaigns, asking people to elect them on the basis of their religious affiliation. Relations have been damaged, to the extent that over 100,000 people have lost their lives in this misunderstanding of religion. Most of these deaths have been among the poor.

AM: How did you get to know each other? Is it unusual for a Muslim and a Christian to cooperate in this way?

Wuye: It may be we are the only people in the world who used to fight each other but now are friends and work together for peace.

In 1995 we were both invited by the governor of our region to participate in a children’s immunization project sponsored by UNICEF. While there, a journalist who knew of our stories away from violence brought us together, made us to grasp hands, and encouraged us to work together for peace. At this point we began talking to each other.

AM: What is your view of sectarian conflict in Egypt?

Ashafa: To speak of Nigeria first: Our founding fathers were Muslims and Christians who worked together to build the nation, but a hurt developed between the colonialist British and the Muslims in the north. There, an Islamic system had been in place for centuries, but the colonialists replaced this with an English system.

Muslims then split into three groups. Some rejected the British queen altogether and moved to Sudan. Others separated themselves from the system and isolated from government contact. The third group decided to join the government and seek to use it to reestablish the glories of Islam.

Unfortunately, the colonial government employed this third group to exploit the non-Muslim populations in the south, using them as tax collectors. These animist peoples eventually became Christians and developed animosity toward the Muslims.

These pains have remained since Nigerian independence, and all problems can quickly take on religious dimensions. It is not unusual for a small conflict to develop into a big issue.

This colonial heritage is shared between Nigeria and Egypt. In Egypt, Muslims and Christians have lived together for centuries, but recently the relationship has been getting sour, as we saw in Imbaba.

Your problems are minor compared to ours, but we have seen our problems explode, and we don’t want to see your problems degenerate as ours have done. Overall, we are very proud of Egypt. Behind us, you are the 2nd most populous country in Africa.

AM: How do you describe your work, and why did you set it up?

Wuye: Our work is non-governmental, non-political, and focused on civil society. We set it up for three reasons: First, to prevent conflict from happening. Second, to mediate between those in conflict. Third, to build bridges and encourage forgiveness.

We do work with the government at the grassroots level if requested to help solve community problems. But we do not work for the government.

AM: Do you have support from the government?

Wuye: Moral support, yes. Financial support, no.

Ashafa: In terms of the community, people are divided. Some think that we betray each other’s particular religious group. Others believe we are compromisers, and benefit from the support of the West. Most people, though, the silent majority, believe we are doing the right thing.

AM: What is your organizational structure?

Wuye: We are composed only of Nigerians, aiming to be equal in number between Muslims and Christians. In our headquarters we are fourteen people, seven and seven. We have at least one Muslim and one Christian volunteer in 36 of the Nigerian states.

Ashafa: We also have worked in Sudan, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burundi, South Africa, Bosnia, and Iraq. We have also presented our story in many other nations.

AM: What is the concept of religion in Nigeria?

Ashafa: According to the BBC World study in February 2003, Nigeria is the most religious nation in the world. And according to the Bettleman Foundation study in 2007, it has an 82% rating on religious sensitivity. Among the traditional Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria are emerging Salafi and evangelical trends.

It is not possible to say that religion in Nigeria is moderate, since our great religious sensitivity can lead easily to explosions of violence, especially in the north. But, it is not proper to call it extremist either, though we do have radical movements that name themselves after Gaza, Kandahar, and the like.

AM: What word do you have for Muslims and Christians in Egypt?

Wuye: We know you are for peace. We watched during your revolution as Muslims and Christians protected each other during times of prayer. Continue this relation. God bless Egypt.

Ashafa: Egypt is the hope of the Arab world. You are going through a democratic process – make sure it is non-violent. We are proud of Egypt, and hope you can consolidate your gains in the September elections.