Against all odds

IN PAKISTAN, a government minister condemns Salman Rushdie and endorses suicide attacks on the writer. Islamic factions battle it out in the Gaza Strip, while Israeli forces target militants among them. In Baghdad, meanwhile, insurgents kill hundreds and unite in their scorn of a government shored up by a decadent, Christian west. Closer to home, there have been racist reprisals across Scotland after the Glasgow airport attack.

In a world riven by violent religious strife, non-believers, atheists, humanists - call them what you will - despair of ever seeing an end to all these conflicts. As the man said: imagine no religion. But even the most sceptical observer can find hope in a story coming out of the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna. Here, a model of reconciliation is emerging from a ghastly recent history that has seen thousands of murders over 20 years.

This drive for peace is spearheaded by two men, Muhammed Ashafa, an imam, and James Wuye, a Pentecostal pastor. Once they were sworn enemies whose mutual loathing had a decidedly personal edge. Each was a religious and military leader within his own community and believed it was his god-given duty to kill the other.

Now they are much more than reconciled. Ashafa and Wuye are inseparable friends and the founders of an interfaith mission that is showing every sign of achieving the impossible. They are bringing peace to a city where violence has long been the preferred solution to any political or religious problem.

The evidence of a remarkable change is provided by a 40-minute documentary entitled The Imam and the Pastor. Programmed into the Edinburgh's Festival of Spirituality and Peace, it has already been shown in cinemas across Nigeria, where its slow burn has begun to ignite a peace movement throughout the country. It has, quite literally, caused fighting men to lay down their weapons.

The sombre context of the film is revealed in its opening sequence. With his thin, worried face, Ashafa is standing by a mass grave in which 630 victims of a massacre are buried - Muslims and Christians killed in bitter fighting in May 2004. "Allah," he says, "these are your servants, sons and daughters of your servants, who are victims of man's inhumanity to his fellow human beings... Allah, let their souls rest in perfect peace." At the end of documentary, Ashafa, Wuye and their entourage from the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna are shown five months later in the same town, promoting a festival for peace, attended by everyone who lives there - including the militias.

At first, tension is unmistakably etched on the faces of the people in the crowd. "It was by no means certain what would happen that day," remembers film-maker Alan Channer, who with his father made The Imam and the Pastor. "The atmosphere was highly charged, with people who had been at each other's throats just weeks before, now standing side by side."

But instead of violence, the ceremonies generated a growing sense of euphoria, which soon spread. Similar initiatives have quickly been generated in other parts of the country, amounting to a huge achievement for Wuye and Ashafa. The pair were in London last month so that the imam could receive medical treatment for serious back and neck injuries he had suffered in a road accident. Despite his obvious discomfort, and the presence of the imposing Wuye, the men were inundated with visitors.

When I caught up with them in a community centre in central London, well-wishers and peace campaigners crowded around them, alongside others who believe the two men have a real contribution to make to conflict-resolution throughout the world. There are already suggestions that they would make worthy Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Yet it is only 15 years since both were knee-deep in blood in Kaduna, at the centre of disastrous events that would eventually change the lives of both men. Violence erupted in the spring of 1992. "For 48 hours, we were killing one another," remembers Ashafa. "I was fighting, believing I had to defend my faith, maiming and killing the others. My spiritual teacher, a man of 70, was murdered by the Christian community in his area. Two of my cousins were killed, and I came to know that it was James's group who had organised that militia. I was nursing an anger. For three years, my group and I were planning to eliminate the leaders of these groups."

Later that same year, the pastor and his entourage were set upon. Wuye's bodyguard was killed, and he was left for dead. When his friends found him, Wuye was lying in a pool of blood, and his right hand, completely severed at the wrist, was on the ground beside him. He now wears a prosthetic hand. Throughout his recovery, remembers the pastor, he thought only of vengeance. "I felt propelled forward, even with a bandage on my arm," he says. "I went out to train people to fight, to show that this thing must be continued. I thought, 'Even if I die in this cause, I will be happy.' Even when I started working with the imam, I nursed the ambition of killing him."

To get to grips with what drives these men, you have to understand the world they come from. With more than one and a half million inhabitants, the city of Kaduna teems with life, but it has long been a flashpoint for ethnic and religious tensions. "The wave of Christianity from the south and the wave of Islam from the north meet in Kaduna," Wuye tells me. "The population is delicately balanced."

When the BBC correspondent Dan Isaacs visited Kaduna in 2002 he found a scene of utter devastation. On one side of the city he came across a humanitarian centre dishing out food to hundreds of Muslims who had lost their homes and businesses after days of rioting. On the other, he walked through the charred remains of a Christian church, its walls blackened and roof opened to the sky. "Crises are inevitable in every society," Isaacs was warned, "but if not properly managed a small crisis can lead to a huge conflagration."

Channer has come to know this dangerous city well. "Poverty in Nigeria can be jarring, but even by those standards, Ashafa and Wuye are from slum areas," says the film-maker. "The people they work with know all about difficult lives."

Both now in their late 40s, Ashafa and Wuye grew up far from the kind of political power that might have altered their personal conditions for the better. The son of a religious leader, Ashafa attended the Islamic school in Kaduna and went to university in Khartoum, in Sudan. But for all his obvious intelligence and learning, he was effectively barred from any decent position in a state that owed everything to the missionary zeal of British Christian colonists.

Wuye too was hampered by his ethnicity. He belonged to the Gwari people, who did not find favour in the political settlement of the 1960s. "We did not accept Western culture. We rarely went to formal schools, so only a few graduated," he says. "It caused a great gap in the political terrain and caused all sorts of manipulation of the people."

His father was a soldier, so he grew up in a barracks in the 1960s, "learning violence". He says, "My community was marginalised. For me the best way to show my faith was to join a group that was ready to fight for any kind of liberation. That's how I joined - from being marginalised to becoming a defender of the faith and fighting for the political emancipation of my people."

A big man with a commanding manner, Wuye soon found that he was a natural leader. "People point me out," he says. "It just happens all the time." For years he was known as Coach. "I learnt a lot of things that a child who grows up in a normal community would not know. It became an advantage. I knew how to talk to girls. I knew how to cook and I knew how to drink and smoke. I could teach other young people all these things." He laughs. "Naturally, I was their coach."

With formal politics beyond their reach, both men channelled their energies into religion, religious politics and, inevitably, armed struggle. Wuye remembers his group's expectations of Islamic militants - Ashafa, he recalls, was "a terrible fundamentalist". He says, "Even something as natural as an eclipse could cause a violent situation in Kaduna. One of the fundamentalists' beliefs is that an eclipse is a sign that the end of the world is nigh. So every Muslim felt he should cleanse society, so they would attack bars and sex hawkers - and also churches. But that is oppression. That's why we felt we should fight to protect the churches and our religious leaders. We trained in guerrilla warfare because we wanted to protect the church."

Following the bloody events of 1992, Ashafa was first to begin to question his motivation for fighting when he heard a speaker in the mosque talking about forgiveness. He felt as if he was being spoken to personally, he remembers, and invited to create a space around himself for his enemies. "For three years, there was a struggle within," he remembers. "Could I really live by these principles? Could I really walk with my enemy? Can I work with someone who had betrayed me, who had caused pain and tears for my own people? That was a challenge.

"I had been a radical Muslim, a fanatic, an extremist," he says, "but I realised that radicalism is bred from ignorance and that I was ignorant of the real virtue of Muslim traditions. Islamic tradition gives us the right, if an injustice is done to us, to seek redress. But it says the greater virtue lies in the ability to forgive an enemy and turn him into a friend. You must give him what he cannot give you: forgiveness.

"I identified one of the Christian militia leaders who had killed my own spiritual leader - and I decided to forgive him and to work with him as my friend. I knew it was right. I kept asking myself, 'Why couldn't I have discovered this in the first place?'"

Wuye was the enemy Ashafa had picked out, although his career until then suggested that he would make an unlikely convert to the cause of peace. In May 1995, the two men met, unexpectedly, at a gathering of community leaders. Not long afterwards, Wuye's mother was taken ill, and Ashafa and some other Muslims visited her in the hospital.

Finally, the reluctant pastor accepted an invitation to join Ashafa at his mosque. When he got there, remembers Wuye, he felt like a cat on a hot tin roof. "First and foremost, I mapped out my escape route when I arrived," he recalls. "If you've been trained in combat the way I have, the first thing you think about when you go to a place is, 'How do I escape if the worst happens?' The second thing, of course, is that it is difficult to forgive someone who directly or indirectly is responsible for your incapacitation. So it took the spirit of God in me, the love of Jesus Christ, to really change me and come out of this challenge."

Wuye reached his spiritual turning point months later, when another Christian preacher took him aside. "He felt that with the hatred I felt for Muslims I could not preach Jesus Christ. He said, 'James, you have to change your attitude to Muslims - you must love them, though what they do to you and to other people is not good. What would the Lord have done? He would have forgiven them.' That is why I changed my mind and gave myself fully to the work of reconciliation and peacemaking."

That was a beginning. In 1995 the Interfaith Mediation Centre was founded, promoting a variety of strategies for conflict resolution. It offers counselling and training, holds conferences and seminars and advises on media work. And it sets its sights high. One of its three stated aims is to put an end to the human tragedy of war.

Can it be done? Ashafa reminds me that he found a space for the man he held responsible for the deaths of his family and some of his closest friends. "When we talk of forgiveness it is not about being a coward," he says. "It is a weapon of the courageous. To forgive is a symbol of humility - humility with a consciousness of the reality around you. Evil that happened will not come again. You go beyond it, not to punish, but to transform."

And they already know what can be achieved. "Look at the peace festival in the film," Ashafa urges. "The people who are dancing - they are the rival militias. They threw down their arms for peace. They were hugging each other."

Earlier this year, staff from the Interfaith Mediation Centre were able to take their message far beyond Kaduna, during Nigeria's general election. The atmosphere was volatile, but though marred by instances of vote-rigging the election passed without significant violence. Now officials in President Umaru Yar'Adua's government are talking about putting their weight behind a scheme to roll out Kaduna's model of co-operation across the country.

But the influence of the imam and the pastor could stretch on to a much wider stage. With what Wuye describes as "a succession plan" in place in their home city, he and Ashafa are in possession of a universal model that could be applied anywhere in the world. Then he reveals that UN officials have been asking whether it might be possible to replicate the Kaduna model in Iraq, with the imam and the pastor operating from Jordan. "We are waiting," he says. "We feel strongly that what we have is not only for religion-related differences; it can transcend even this and apply to race, ethnicity and to political differences. We feel strongly that God, in his divine mercy, has got us together to create a change for our generation. And we are willing to give all our time and energy to that. We are willing to share this story."

• The Festival of Spirituality and Peace (www.festivalofspirituality.org.uk, 0131 221 2273) takes place in Edinburgh from August 5 to 26

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