Armed conflict between Christians and Muslims is on the rise. Most recently, we have seen attacks in Egypt take on a disturbingly sectarian dimension, but this trend has been spreading through the Middle East and Northern and sub-Saharan Africa for some time. One need only look at the ongoing attacks on Christian churches in Iraq. Or, the decades of conflict in the Sudan, where Arab Muslims in the North slaughtered 1 million black Christians in the South. In recent years, there was a huge public outcry against the genocide-in-progress in Darfur, and we can now hope that the new country of South Sudan will provide some stability to its beleaguered citizens. But in spite of these small signs of improvement, the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria persists and is escalating again.
Following Christmas mass, 35 worshipers were killed in a Catholic Church in Madala, Nigeria, a suburb of the capital Abuja. It was a shocking and horrific event, but nothing new for Nigeria, where violence between Muslims and Christians occurs frequently. Only a few weeks ago, the radical Muslim group Boko Haram mounted a series of deadly attacks in Northern Nigeria. In Damaturu, attacks left more than 100 dead with churches and state buildings singled out. Additional attacks were mounted in Maiduguri, located within the region most supportive of Boko Haram.
And that brings us to the moment in which Catholic worshipers were massacred on one of their most holy days. Apparently in retaliation, an Islamic school was bombed on Tuesday night in Southern Nigeria, an area where such attacks rarely occur. The bomb was thrown into a classroom of 5- to 8-year-olds who were studying Arabic and the Quran. Seven students were injured but, fortunately, none killed. How do we understand these tragedies?
The organization I founded, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, works with a network of religiously motivated peacemaker practitioners who operate on the ground in conflict zones around the world. Among these are two Peacemakers in Nigeria -- Imam Mohammed Ashafa and Reverend James Wuye. They've given us real insight into the endemic clashes between Muslims and Christians in sub-Saharan Africa.
The conflict has roots in intergenerational hatreds that started in the Colonial era. British Colonial rulers put Muslims in charge in Nigeria's North, which proved disastrous for religious minorities, including Christians, who were not exempt from Islamic laws. The colonists ruled the South, encouraging missionaries and the growing Christian population. For Muslims, Christianity became associated with the white Colonial rulers, thus branding Christians as enemies. On the other side, many Christians saw their faith as the only true one, which led to hostility toward Muslims. After Nigeria's independence, decades of tumultuous politics deepened the divide between the predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, leading to cycles of violence and conflict.
Kurt Cardinal Koch, recently appointed President of the Vatican Pontificate on Christian Unity, is deeply concerned about the violence and resulting danger to Christians in the Middle East and Africa. He has called for Jews and Christians to stand together to oppose the persecution of Christians. Although Jews have no direct involvement in the historical conflict between Christians and Muslims in this part of the world, they have been impacted by it.
One need only reflect on the development of Nostra Aetate, the breakthrough document that emerged from Vatican Council II in 1965. Nostra Aetate is best known as a document that sought to reverse centuries of Catholic teaching of contempt against the Jews, though it also acknowledged Muslims. What is not so well known is the horse trading that went on as the Catholic Church tried to balance its fears for Christians living in Arab countries against its moral obligation to make right the persistent persecution of Jews that was inspired by its liturgy. Bishops from the Middle East warned against any inclusion of "the Jewish question." And if Jews were to be mentioned, then some word would also have to be said about Islam. In the end, a watered-down, but still revolutionary, document was produced that made clear statements absolving Jews of collective guilt for the death of Jesus and acknowledging the ongoing covenant of God with the Jews.
Nostra Aetate also referenced Islam for its recognition of Abraham and Mary and Jesus. The synod urged Christians and Muslims to forget the hostilities of the past and work together for mutual understanding and benefit. (This may have involved some misunderstanding of the impact of the Crusades on the collective memory of Muslims. Indeed, the very word "crusade," however it is used, is toxic to many Muslims.) Hearteningly, that call is now bearing fruit in the form of A Common Word, in which Muslim and Christian clergy from around the world have engaged with each other. Ironically, this constructive process emerged in response to statements made by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, which were perceived as anti-Muslim.
For Christians, how does a gospel of love turn into a gospel of hate toward fellow countrymen in Africa? For Muslims, how does a religion of peace get turned into a mandate for murder in Iraq, the Sudan, Nigeria and elsewhere? The answer: religion, misused for political purposes, makes a combustible mixture that distorts religion's core values and leads to mass destruction.
In reflecting on religious difference, it's fitting to return to Ashafa and Wuye, two former enemies, sworn to each other's destruction, who now work together to resolve conflict in their own country as well as others. Imam Ashafa recalls: "A mutual friend ... took both of us by the hand and said: 'The two of you can pull this nation together, or you can destroy it. Do something.'" Over the next few years, through ongoing meetings and separate religious epiphanies, the two men slowly built mutual respect, and decided to bridge the divide between their communities. Together, they personify the vision of A Common Word.
In 1995, Ashafa and Wuye formed the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, a religious grass-roots organization that has successfully mediated between Christians and Muslims throughout their country. Their organization, now with more than 10,000 members, reaches into the militias and trains the country's youth -- as well as women, religious figures and tribal leaders -- to become civic peace activists. Under their leadership, Muslim and Christian youth jointly rebuild the mosques and churches they once destroyed through war and violence.
Ashafa and Wuye are the living proof that religion can be part of the solution to conflict rather than the cause of conflict. They stand in the vanguard of exemplary reconciliation efforts that may, one day, de-escalate the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Africa.
There is no more eloquent expression of the importance of Christian-Muslim reconciliation opening paragraphs of A Common Word Between Us:
Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world's population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.
The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.