The United States has expanded its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.
Two new nations—Cuba and Nicaragua—were added on Friday to the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). Two others—Vietnam and the Central African Republic (CAR)—were added to its Special Watch List (SWL). And one new organization was added to its list of Entities of Particular Concern (EPC): Russia’s mercenary Wagner group, due to its cited offenses in CAR.
“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs,” stated Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State. “The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses.”
His own watchdog, however, is unconvinced.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) tweeted its “outrage” over the non-inclusion of Nigeria and India. It is “inexplicable,” the independent bipartisan organization continued, given the State Department’s own reporting.
In June, Blinken released the US government’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Mandated by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the report chronicles violations in every nation of the world, whether by governmental or societal actors, measuring also the local legal frameworks.
The sections on Nigeria and India were particularly lengthy.
“They each clearly meet the legal standards for designation,” stated Nury Turkel, USCIRF chair. “USCIRF is tremendously disappointed that the Secretary of State did not … recognize the severity of the religious freedom violations.” This past year, USCIRF issued…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on December 5, 2022.Please click here to read the full text.
The field is set for Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election, leaving its Christian citizens in a quandary.
In selecting candidates to replace the current head of state, Muhammadu Buhari, one dominant political party ignored customary protocols ensuring geographic rotation of power, while the other party—in the face of severe warnings—abandoned the customary commitment to religious representation.
Believers may desert them both.
Africa’s most-populous nation is roughly divided between a majority Muslim north and a majority Christian south. An unwritten agreement has rotated the presidency between the two regions. Buhari, a Muslim, hails from Borno State in the northeast.
The first transgression, by geography, happened in May when the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) nominated Atiku Abubakar from Adamawa State, also in Nigeria’s northeast. A Muslim, he chose as his vice-presidential running mate Ifeanyi Okowa, the Christian governor of Delta State in the south.
One month later, the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) nominated Bola Tinubu, the Muslim former governor of Lagos State in the south. But since he hails from a Christian region, fears were raised that his Muslim rival for president might sweep the north—viewed by many as a more reliable voting bloc. Speculation was rampant he would choose a Muslim vice-presidential candidate to compensate.
“We will consider such action as a declaration of war,” warned the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which represents almost all the nation’s Protestants and Catholics. “We … will mobilize politically against any political party that sows the seed of religious conflict.” CAN also opposes any Christian-Christian political ticket as well.
Similar statements were issued by two of CAN’s five blocs: the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria—“Meet us at the polls,” it said—and the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria.
Opposition extended beyond religion.
The civil society Middle Belt Forum warned the APC against breaking Nigerian unity. And a leaked security report—denied by Buhari—said such a choice would destabilize the nation and risk Christian lives.
Tinubu defied them all.
“I believe this is the man who can help me bring the best governance to all Nigerians,” he said on July 10, defending his selection of the Muslim former governor of Borno, Kashim Shettima. “In this crucial moment, where so much is at stake, we must prioritize leadership, competence, and the ability to work as a team over other considerations.”
The vice president of Nigeria holds no formal power. But Christians were aghast at the affront.
“In a country with 100 million people in each religion, are you saying there is no competent Christian who can be your partner?” asked Samson Ayokunle, the outgoing president of CAN. “If you are picking a Muslim, it means you have an agenda.”
Ayokunle, a Baptist, assured that CAN, which this week will rotate to new leadership, has no preference in terms of political parties. Tinubu governed Lagos well, he said, and Abubakar has never picked a fight with Christians.
However, “CAN said loud and clear that we will teach a lesson to any party with a Muslim-Muslim ticket,” Ayokunle told CT. The only complication? “Christians have not been voting enough.”
It may be about to change. Denominations across Nigeria…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 26, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
The US Department of State released its 2021 annual report on international religious freedom (IRF) last week, describing conditions in nearly 200 nations. Delivering remarks from the Benjamin Franklin room—where US ambassadors are sworn into service—Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented a litany of well-known offenders.
China, he said, continues its genocide against Uighur Muslims.
Saudi Arabia makes illegal the practice of any faith besides Islam.
Pakistan sentences people to death for blasphemy.
And Eritrea demands renunciation of faith to release the arrested members of religious minorities.
“Respect for religious freedom isn’t only one of the deepest held values and a fundamental right,” Blinken stated. “It’s also, from my perspective, a vital foreign policy priority.”
Last November, these four nations were among the 10 Blinken designated as countries of particular concern (CPC). A separate special watch list (SWL) listed four more: Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
But three days after the IRF report release, a terrorist attack in Nigeria highlighted its omission. Dozens of Christians were gunned down in a Catholic church on Pentecost Sunday. And one month earlier, a Christian college student was murdered by a mob over her alleged blasphemy against Islam.
Back in April, the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its own list of nonbinding CPC recommendations, reminding Blinken it was “appalled” at the omission of Nigeria. After listing Africa’s most populous nation as a CPC for the first time in 2020, the State Department removed…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on June 6, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Terrorists launched a gun and bomb attack at the end of a Catholic Mass in southwest Nigeria on Sunday, killing an estimated 70 worshipers according to residents and church leaders.
The terrorists attacked the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo state, at about 9 a.m., church leaders and residents told Morning Star News (MSN) though text messages. The carnage could have been greater. The church, one of the largest in the area, can hold up to 1,200 people, and was full at the time of the attack.
A priest at the church, Andrew Abayomi, told MSN that as the worship service was coming to an end, the terrorists threw explosive devices and shot at worshipers.
“We were in worship Mass when the terrorists attacked us. They shot at the congregation while breaking into the church by throwing improvised explosive devices at the church building,” Abayomi said. “Some of us hid inside the church as they shot randomly at us. This lasted for about 20 minutes before they retreated.”
He said it was difficult to give details about the number killed and injured, as leaders were focusing on transferring the wounded to hospitals. Circulated videos showed bloody images of men, women, and children strewed among the pews. Among other Owo residents, Loye Owolemi said about 70 worshipers were shot dead and others abducted when terrorists…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 5, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Thousands of churches across Nigeria demanded an end to sectarian killings on Sunday, horrified by the mob assault on a female university student accused of blasphemy. But fearful of more violence, their approach differed significantly—by geography.
“The overwhelming majority of our churches in the south participated, many going to the streets in peaceful protest,” said Testimony Onifade, senior special assistant to the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). “Gathering together, we condemned this gruesome act and demanded the government identify, arrest, and prosecute the culprits.”
But in the north, where Muslims represent the majority of Nigerians, John Hayab described 20 minutes set aside to pray for divine intervention. The president of CAN’s Kaduna state chapter lauded the “solemn” ceremony observed by all northern denominations, amid a ban on protests by local authorities as some Muslims had threatened counterdemonstrations.
Instead, a select group of 120 Christian leaders gathered in a Kaduna city church, guarded by police and security agencies.
There was good reason for caution.
Two weeks ago, in Nigeria’s northwestern-most state of Sokoto, Deborah Samuel was beaten to death and set on fire by fellow students at Shehu Shagari College of Education. Officials and police intervened in vain.
Two students were arrested. Protesting for their release, Muslim supporters proceeded to destroy an additional 11 buildings, descended on Christian shops in the city, and besieged the palace of the sultan of Sokoto who had condemned the May 12 murder.
According to her friend Rakia, Samuel’s last words were, “What do you hope to achieve with this?”
After a colleague shared Islamic material on an exam-prep social media group, Samuel posted an audio recording asking him to remove it. Friends who overheard some Muslim students deeming her response to be blasphemous urged her to retract the statement. Instead, she responded…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 25, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
As a new administration takes over leadership of America’s commitment to religious freedom worldwide, Gayle Manchin believes President Joe Biden is “very aware” of its importance.
But given global developments, the watchdog work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which she chairs, sometimes feels like “treading water.”
Others agree. For example, an 800-page study released this week by Aid to the Church in Need concludes that 1 in 3 nations of the world do not respect religious freedom.
And in 95 percent of these, the situation is growing worse.
USCIRF, created to provide recommendations to the US government, released its 22nd annual report today. Its analysis identifies significant problems in 26 countries, down from 29 last year. It also marked a surge in worldwide antisemitism.
Following the commission’s advice, last December then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation of Burma [Myanmar], China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). USCIRF’s 2021 report recommends that new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken add…
Last year, Nigeria was added as a CPC by the State Department. How did USCIRF’s work contribute to the decision?
USCIRF has a unique ability to focus on religious freedom, while the State Department looks at the relationship with a country in balance. But they take our work very seriously, and know the research and credibility behind it. They watch, and when the information is overwhelming—and when they are comfortable—they will join us in a recommendation.
But I never question when they don’t. There may be details going on that we are not aware of.
So how do you interpret the State Department additions of Cuba and Nicaragua to the SWL? Maybe they are not the most egregious violators of religious freedom, compared to others on the USCIRF list?
Both of these countries are continuing to trend worse. When we are able to travel again, these are nations we will reach out to for a visit, to get a clearer picture of what is going on. There is always a political aspect, from the government’s perspective.
But now that Cuba is without a Castro for the first time, there are things happening that may change. Of course, it could also be toward the negative, so we will continue to monitor.
What nations generated the most controversy and discussion among USCIRF commissioners? …
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 21, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Only one country was added this year to the US government’s official list of the world’s worst persecutors of religion: Nigeria.
And the Christian Association of Nigeria made a statement, excerpted here from my joint article at Christianity Today:
“[We are] not happy that the US has placed Nigeria on a religious freedom blacķlist, because of the implications which include possible sanctions,” stated CAN president Samson Ayokunle.
“But at the same time, we are encouraged that the global world is aware of what is happening.”
Nigeria has religious freedom, CAN reminded, but it is denied in certain regional states—especially in the Muslim-majority north. Churches face discriminatory zoning procedures, and Christian professors are denied senior leadership positions, the group stated.
And while Muslims denounce terrorism by Boko Haram and its breakway faction, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), such violence is done in the name of Allah, stated CAN. Fulani herdsmen, meanwhile, kill in predominantly Christian farming communities.
“Pastors and their families are under attack,” stated Ayokunle. “Churches are being burnt and destroyed. They are taking over our farms and communities.”
The rest of the article contains additional Nigerian commentary, as well as the larger context for the State Department decision.
So while the Christian leadership of Nigeria fears the impact of the CPC designation by the United States, the job of securing religious freedom may be too big for Buhari alone.
“CAN has been consistently calling on the government to fix the security challenges before too late,” Ayokunle stated. “We call on the international community to help our government to wipe out these terrorists.”
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 7, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.
The Nigerian government now agrees with what church leaders have been complaining for years: Christians are the target of jihadist terrorism.
“In the wake of a renewed onslaught by our tireless military against Boko Haram and their ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) allies in recent times, the insurgents have apparently changed their strategy,” said Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture, at a press conference last week.
“They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos.”
In comments given exclusively to CT, the administration of President Muhammad Buhari clarified that this targeting is not new.
“Yes, Boko Haram is targeting individual Christians. In doing so, their target is all Nigerians, and their goal is to divide Christian brother against Muslim brother,” Mohammed, the information minister, told CT.
“What Boko Haram seeks—and always has sought—is to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.
“By targeting Christians, they seek to promulgate the falsehood that…
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
Having finished his Sunday sermon from Psalm 18 on God as a stronghold who delivers his people from their enemies, Enoch Adeboye then led them to a cemetery.
It was an ironic yet appropriate choice.
Wearing a bright green tuxedo, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Lagos, Nigeria, marched three miles yesterday holding a placard that declared: “All Souls are Precious to God.”
Adeboye and his congregation, one of the largest in the world, answered the call issued by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for a three-day fast this past weekend, concluding in a prayer walk. Based on reports from its state chapters and local media, CAN estimates 5 million people marched in 28 of Nigeria’s 36 states on Sunday.
“Though we have protested before, this event took a new dimension,” CAN president Samson Ayokunle told CT.
“With one voice, we said ‘no’ to killings, ‘no’ to security negligence, and ‘no’ to the persecution of Christians in Nigeria. It is a wake-up call to the government.”
Launched on January 29 to protest the beheading of Brethren pastor Lawan Andimi, the chairman of a regional CAN chapter in Adamawa state, by Boko Haram two weeks earlier, the prayer was also a protest at the Nigerian government’s failure to stop the abductions and killings.
Terrorist attacks, as well as clashes between mostly Muslim herdsmen and mostly Christian farmers, resulted in more than 100 deaths in January alone.
“Lord, have mercy on Nigeria, let there be peace and security,” said Adeboye. “God sees all things and knows where the terrorists are hiding.
“We pray that God send his light to Nigeria and expose the evildoers in the country.”
In the perspective of CAN, these reach into the upper levels of government.
“O Lord, in Jesus Name, expose all the…”
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, and here to read the op-ed submitted by Muhammadu Buhari, president of Nigeria.
A hostage video released last week by Boko Haram did far more than issue another Nigerian plea for rescue.
It revealed a modern-day Shadrach.
“By the grace of God, I will be together with my wife, my children, and my colleagues,” said Lawan Andimi, a Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN) pastor in the troubled northeastern state of Adamawa. “[But] if the opportunity has not been granted, maybe it is the will of God.
“Be patient, don’t cry, don’t worry. But thank God for everything.”
It is testimony even to his captors, said Gideon Para-Mallam, the Jos-based Africa ambassador for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).
“This is completely different from most hostage videos,” he said. “[Andimi] appeared as one who has already conquered death, saying to his abductors…”
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
In another filmed massacre, 11 Nigerian Christians were executed by the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) over the Christmas holiday.
Wearing the orange jumpsuits made familiar by similar executions of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya, the first Nigerian victim was shot in the head by the black-clad terrorists who then slit the throats of the remaining ten. It is understood to be the largest group killed by ISWAP, a Boko Haram splinter group, so far.
“This message is to the Christians in the world,” stated the 56-second propaganda video, released December 26, in both Arabic and Hausa, according to The New York Times.
“Those who you see in front of us are Christians, and we will shed their blood as revenge for the two dignified sheikhs.”
The reference is to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former ISIS caliph killed by US troops in an October raid in Syria, and Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, his purported successor, who was killed the next day.
The video offered no information about the victims, other than that they were recently seized in Nigeria’s northwest Borno state. But an earlier video was released by ISWAP in which captured aid workers appealed to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, as well as to the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).
Four aid workers were killed by ISWAP earlier this month. Dozens of others are believed to still be in captivity, including Leah Sharibu, a teenage girl kidnapped almost two years ago whose perseverance under pressure has inspired Nigerian Christians.
The International Crisis Group estimates the jihadist group consists of between 3,500 and 5,000 fighters.
“These agents of darkness are enemies of our common humanity, and they don’t spare any victim, whether they are Muslims or Christians,” stated Buhari, according to al-Jazeera.
Nigeria’s population of 200 million is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.
Muslim victims have been many, agreed CAN in an earlier statement. But it stated the widespread killing in Nigeria’s north has predominately targeted Christians, who make up 95 percent of those currently detained by jihadists.
“The government has been paying lip service towards securing their freedom,” stated CAN, mentioning in particular…
Please click here to read this article at Christianity Today.
Anglicans of the Global South met today in All Saints Cathedral, Cairo, taking communion and opening their sixth conference. Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of Egypt, chairman of the Global South Steering Committee, welcomed 12 primates and 90 delegates from 20 provinces of the Anglican Church.
In his opening address he gave a brief history lesson, recalling an earlier archbishop of Egypt, the 4th century Athanasius of Alexandria.
“He was known as ‘contra mundum’, ‘against the world’,” said Anis of the ancient champion against the heresy of Arianism. “He was opposed at that time even by the emperor, but eventually the false teaching disappeared, while orthodoxy flourished.”
Anis encouraged delegates to take two lessons from this history. First, drawing on the conference theme from I Corinthians 4:2, the church must be “found faithful” to the gospel received from the apostles. Second, the truth will prevail in the end.
Anis decried an “ideological slavery” in which some in the Western church use their money and influence to push their agenda on the Global South. They undermine the scripture and the traditions of the church in redefining the definition of marriage, he said, and their unilateral choices to ordain homosexual bishops is fraying the fabric of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
“I want to weep,” Anis said, “as Jesus did over Jerusalem.”
Anis also challenged delegates over the weaknesses of churches in the Global South. Corruption, tribalism, polygamy, poor treatment of women, and the prosperity gospel all show the need for greater theological education.
The church must also address the issues of poverty and economic migration, moving away from a dependency on Western aid into a more sustainable development. And as concerns terrorism and religious violence, Christians must again look to history, following the example of the martyrs, if necessary.
During the communion service, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria preached on the peace of Christ that is able to prevail in a crisis situation. The world has not achieved peace, citing examples in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and his own homeland.
Christians, however, are called to be peacemakers focused on justice, fairness, and the love of God. This is also a call for world evangelization, he said, that the knowledge of the Lord may fill the earth as the waters cover the sea, quoting the prophecy of Isaiah 11.
Bishop Rennis Ponniah of Singapore prayed for the delegates, that God would melt their pride, free them from biases, and strip away all rivalries. He urged humility and submission to follow Jesus, that God would reveal what this means for them in the Global South.
“Let us weep over what breaks your heart,” Ponniah prayed. “May our faithfulness be the means by which you restore your church.”
Ecumenical and interfaith guests included representatives of Al Azhar, the Vatican, the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic Churches, and the Armenian Catholics. Political and diplomatic guests included representatives from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the embassies of the United States and Singapore.
The Anglican Church has 85 million members in 164 countries, the world’s third largest Christian denomination behind Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Anglicans in the 24 provinces of the Global South number 61.8 million, constituting 72 percent of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Participants included archbishops from the provinces of Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Southern Africa, Western Africa, Indian Ocean, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and South East Asia. Joining them from outside the Global South were archbishops from North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Archbishop Anis urged them to adopt a joint statement of faith.
“Our unity in the Global South is very important,” said Anis as he closed the opening session. “We must face our many challenges together.”
Seeking commonality with the outrage over the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram, Ebram Louis and the Association of Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disapperances (AVAED) is launching a hashtag of his own. #BringBackOurCopticGirlsEgypt.
I might advise to remove the ‘Egypt’ from the hashtag, thinking ‘Coptic’ builds sufficiently on the now viral #BringBackOurGirls. But Ebram is a dedicated advocate and researcher, and the issue of kidnapped Coptic women is longstanding.
Here I share some recent reflections on the issue, from an article in Arab West Report, excerpting my reflection on the difficulty of this research:
One of the greatest horrors that can befall a family is the sudden disappearance of their child. No country in the world could doubt such tragedy. Why then does controversy surround Coptic minors?
There are two prominent reasons, and both relate to the contested sectarian nature of Egyptian society. While Muslims and Christians live side by side as neighbors, colleagues, and often friends, there is an undercurrent of tension among many, stemming from religious identity. During a moment of crisis or a community dispute, sides can be drawn along religious lines.
Many Christians harbor suspicions that the Islam in a Muslim will push an otherwise friendly neighbor to discrimination, or worse. Many Muslims harbor criticisms that Christians are actually treated better than the average Muslim in society, yet complain constantly. While this tension is generally unspoken a disappearance can shatter the peace.
The first reason is due to an often heard accusation: The girl was kidnapped, with blame assigned to extremist Salafi Muslims. Salafis are understood to be very traditional, and though not necessarily anti-Coptic in essence, often hold a viewpoint assigning non-Muslims a secondary status as if in the historical Islamic caliphate. They also believe in early marriage for women, often below the Egyptian legal age of consent of eighteen. Combining these two characteristics it is posited that some Salafis will kidnap Coptic minors and convert them to Islam to weaken their community, and then marry them off within the Muslim fold.
Setting aside for now the legitimacy of this accusation, it is easy to comprehend its inflammatory nature within a sectarian-laced society. Muslims would be horrified to imagine that such a crime is committed, but furthermore, that it is committed on a religious rationale. But at the same time the alleged crime touches the nerve points of Coptic consciousness, molded over centuries of living within that historical secondary status. Raising the accusation offends Muslims, denying it embitters Christians.
The second reason is due to the social setting surrounding the accusation of kidnapping. Much of Egypt maintains a patriarchal attachment to women, attaching their purity to the family or community’s status of honor and shame. If a woman loses her virginity outside of marriage the offense is felt by the community. A woman who disappears puts their honor at risk, no matter the reason for her absence.
This charged setting is amplified if the suspected disappearance crosses religious lines, in any direction. But first imagine the situation is not one of forced disappearance, but simply of individual choice. The decision of a female to attach herself in relationship outside of family approval is a scandal; it is even greater if the relationship is with a man of a different religion. The reasons can be many and are essentially human: Often they are of love, money, or the desire to escape a difficult home situation. The temptation can therefore be very strong for a family to defend its damaged honor by claiming their daughter has been kidnapped.
These two reasons help explain the controversy, but there is a third factor that may or may not be equally sectarian. The Egyptian state, especially outside of the major population centers, is notoriously weak. Police investigations are often feeble, and the judicial system takes years to process a case. Community transgressions are often left to be solved by the community – with security looking on – and if the crime takes place across religious lines the two sides are encouraged-cum-compelled to ‘reconcile’.
What is more difficult to say is if there is an additional sectarian aspect in police conduct. Christians often accuse security of paying even less attention to crimes against their community. In cases of disappearance of minors, sometimes they fail to investigate at all. Is this due to individual fanaticism, institutional bias, or simply a common indifference?
But the end result for many families is they may have no idea if their daughter was kidnapped or not. She is simply gone. It could be she ran away from home to join her boyfriend. It could be she ran away, but then is met with a host of barriers denying her ability to return. Among these, it is claimed, is the pressure placed on her by the Muslim family, implying the horrors of what will happen to her if she goes back, having violated her family’s honor. Whatever violence she might face, she knows the shame she brought them.
Or, perhaps she was outright kidnapped. Especially following the revolution kidnapping has become a potentially lucrative career given the security vacuum. But if the police do not give due diligence to the cries of a distraught family, what conclusions can they draw? Even if she wishes to marry freely, even if she wishes to convert to Islam freely, the law prohibits these actions until she is eighteen. As a minor, she must be returned to her family. Very often, the law fails.
And also the fact that in a country of more than 85 million people, any one person’s individual problem is drowned in a sea of difficulty and inequity. In order to get the attention of authorities, one must yell louder than everyone else. ‘Kidnapping’ makes for a very loud scream.
Given all the above, this is why proper research into a disappearance is essential. Without it, not only can religious and social taboos be violated, but far worse, the girl may never return home.
But when research must take place independent of the properly invested authorities, it also acquires an air of advocacy. But what can be more appropriate? The task is to put right a wrong, not study sociology.
As such, Ebram Louis is both a researcher and an activist.
The rest of the article profiles his work through the Association for Victims of Abductions and Forced Disappearances. I have written about him earlier, and you can additionally click here for more information.
But the article closes with his idea for solving the issue. One of his colleagues proposed going through the newly formed Ministry of Transitional Justice, to right past wrongs. Louis, however, wishes to resurrect an old practice:
One possible solution can help sort through the vagary, and is endorsed thoroughly by AVAED. In 2004 in a case similar to that of Camīliah Shihātah, Wafā’ Constantine, another wife of a priest, sparked rumors and demonstrations when she disappeared. Eventually she was returned to the church, but the antagonism that developed between the church and security led to canceling the then-mandatory ‘counseling sessions’ for anyone wishing to convert to Islam.
These sessions were instituted in order to make certain that anyone expressing interest in Islam did so from their full and free will. The would-be convert would meet with a priest under supervision of security, and express his or her desire. The priest had the opportunity to counsel the individual back to the faith, and the presence of security ostensibly ensured an atmosphere of non-coercion.
Reinstituting these counseling sessions would not eliminate the problem of disappearances, but it would carve out space to explore the argument that these young Coptic women are converting to Islam freely. Of course, this only applies when they are of age; otherwise, the law must rule and return all minors to their families. But in the controversial cases where an initial love relationship becomes complicated, a formal procedure to evaluate and process a conversion to Islam would remove much ambiguity from the controversy of disappearances.
Of course, rule of law and freedom of religion are much more basic solutions, but given the nature of Egyptian reality, they are unfortunately not simple solutions. Except for the basic fact that families do not know where their children are, little about this issue is simple.
Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.