Photo by Jim Bishop
International protests against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad inflamed tensions between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, sparking deadly riots in late February that claimed at least 138 lives in several cities.
There was widespread fear that riots would break out in many other parts of the country, including Jos, a central Nigerian city with a recent history of interreligious violence.
But local Muslim and Christian peacemakers worked together to reduce tensions in Jos through face-to-face meetings and cell phone text messaging. These efforts, as well as government security measures, prevented a violent confrontation in Jos, according to Gopar Tapkida, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) peace worker in the city.
Tapkida earned a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in 2001. He began his current assignment as an MCC peace worker in Jos weeks before interreligious riots engulfed the city on Sept. 7, 2001.
Ever since interreligious riots erupted in Jos in 2001 and killed about 900 people, Tapkida and others have worked to teach peacemaking skills to Christians and Muslims in the region. He helped form groups of Christian and Muslim peacemakers in Jos and in the surrounding Plateau state.
On Feb. 23, during a week of heavy rioting in other cities, Tapkida met with 10 leading Muslim and Christian peacemakers in Jos to find ways to diffuse rising tensions.
“We agreed at this meeting that each one of us will serve as evangelists for peace,” Tapkida says.
Members of the group met with their friends and neighbors and spoke about how Christians and Muslims should resist calls for violence against each other.
Tensions escalated in Jos as rumors spread that Muslims were preparing to attack Christians on Feb. 25 and that Christians were planning a reprisal attack. However, two Muslim peacemakers investigated the situation and found that Muslim teenagers were simply planning a demonstration against the cartoons of Muhammad.
The Muslim peacemakers sent text messages to inform Tapkida and other Christian peacemakers and eventually persuaded the teenagers to cancel their demonstration.
Tapkida says that the recent violence in Nigeria is a reflection of longstanding political divisions between Christians and Muslims. Nigeria’s population is divided about equally between the two religions.
Then, Tapkida says, he felt like a lone swimmer in an ocean of violence. But after the recent successes of peacemakers in Jos, he knows he is not alone.
“Today, as I look at the situation, the ocean is still there, but I don’t see myself swimming alone,” Tapkida says. “There are people that are swimming alongside.”