With violence plaguing countries across central Africa, MCC is helping pastors, priests and imams work together for peace in Chad.
From a quiet compound tucked into a side street of Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena, Imam Mahamat Hassan, president of the nation’s union of imams, has an urgent message.
The time to build peace in Chad is now.
It’s a call that stems not from what the Muslim religious leader sees in his own neighborhood, city or even country — but in the turmoil brewing outside Chad’s borders.
“We see Boko Haram in Nigeria. There are terrorists in Mali. There’s the war going on in Central African Republic,” he says.
“If a fire burns the house of your neighbor you must take precautions to avoid it spreading.”
The statistics are grim. In the Central African Republic alone, thousands have died and more than 900,000 people have fled home in violent clashes between Christian and Muslim militias.
In Nigeria, more than 1,200 deaths have been attributed to Boko Haram, an Islamist group terrorizing Christians and Muslims. It’s an extreme example of the violence that has become such a reality in cities like Jos, where MCC’s work is concentrated, that Christian churches have barriers to prevent someone from driving up with a bomb. Likewise, Islamic communities fear attacks by Christians.
The violence haunting central Africa already has a history of crossing from one country to another, and religious leaders sense the threat keenly.
“If a fire burns the house of your neighbor,” Hassan says, “you must take precautions to avoid it spreading.”
That’s exactly what MCC-supported peace workshops in Chad have been working toward the past six years. By bringing together Muslim imams, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, organizers are hoping to build relationships strong enough to dampen the sparks of whatever conflict or violence may spill over into Chad.
Today, the fruits of those encounters have spread — in growing friendships in the capital and beyond, in public events that draw thousands of people to the capital’s main square each year, in interfaith committees tackling community problems together.
For some participants, the workshops — organized by MCC partner Ethics, Peace and Justice, a branch of a coalition of evangelical churches in Chad (Entente des Eglises et Missions Evangéliques au Tchad, or EEMET) — offer a formal structure for interaction and collaboration they already desired. For others, in a country whose history is marked by conflict between the mostly Muslim north and mostly Christian south, they require reaching across years of division.
In the workshops, pastors, priests and imams learn conflict resolution and mediation tools and talk together about stereotypes, beliefs, texts and customs. Perhaps as importantly, during the workshop they live as one group, sharing meals, conversation and a retreat facility.
“When we put religious leaders together for a minimum of five days, they come out different. They become brothers between themselves,” says Souina Potifar, secretary general of EEMET.
That was the experience of Oumar Djibrine, an imam in N’Djamena who had little contact with Christians before being part of a 2011 workshop.
“The result of that is that today, I can just pick up my cell phone and call certain Christian leaders and just ask about their families and what’s happening,” he says.
He receives greetings from Christians for important Muslim holidays such as Ramadan, and in turn extends his greetings for Christian celebrations.
He was moved by the willingness of the Catholic archbishop to visit the Grand Mosque in N’Djamena, and he entered a church for the first time last year as one of the imams attending the funeral of the archbishop.
In one way, these are individual experiences. But they also are strands in a web of relationships — weaving ties that become stronger with each shared greeting or phone call, with each problem or conflict that leaders reach across religious lines to solve.
The idea is that the everyday connections become strong enough that, in a crisis, priests and pastors will naturally connect with imams – working together to speak out against violence, to dispel rumors and to show their followers that people can join across divides and choose peace.
Through the numerous interfaith committees that EEMET has formed, often after workshops, leaders already are collaborating on community issues.
So Pastor Abel Djekourboua — working in a part of N’Djamena where crime and violence are common and where many people don’t speak each other’s indigenous languages — can easily call the local imam if he encounters a neighborhood issue that affects a Muslim family. Likewise, the imam or Catholic priest contacts Djekourboua with news or concerns. Every three months, committee members meet.
“God has blessed this group,” Djekourboua says. “Before, we were afraid of one another. We would not give one another our hearts.”
Now, he says, “we found that if any of us has a problem, we will find a solution together.”
Some 350 miles to the southeast in Sarh, Chad’s third-largest city, one interfaith committee formed after a training with EEMET is giving birth to others — one for women, and one for young people.
“So now we can have meetings in Protestant churches, Protestants can have meetings in mosques and Muslims can have meetings in our churches,” says Father Paul Homine Ndouba, priest of the Catholic Diocese of Sarh. “And that is something you never would have seen before.”
From the beginning, EEMET leaders worked to put a public face to these peace efforts — and they’ve succeeded.
Declarations from workshops and statements of harmony and peace by top Catholic, Muslim and Protestant leaders are often televised.
Prominent government leaders are invited to peace events held by the three religious groups in the capital, and in 2010 EEMET’s work led the president to declare that a day be set aside each year to mark prayers for peace and harmony among the three religious traditions.
When EEMET began workshops in 2008, MCC provided not only funding but a trained peace facilitator, MCC worker Gopar Tapkida. Tapkida then was based in his home community of Jos, Nigeria; today, he and his spouse Monica lead MCC programs in Zimbabwe.
For several years, Tapkida, a Christian, and one of his partners in peace work, Sani Suleiman, who is Muslim, used their experiences to show the possibilities for interfaith dialogue and how these connections across communities can be mobilized quickly to defuse tensions and prevent violence.
Today, facilitators from EEMET, who also received support from MCC for formal peacebuilding training, pass on these lessons.
Workshops began by training high-ranking imams, priests and pastors, all of whom were men. Now, EEMET has worked with religious leaders to incorporate women into some workshops, has held workshops for groups of women from all three religious traditions and is planning more training for women and for youth in the future.
Yet even as the work spreads, so does the urgency.
Spurred by news from the surrounding countries, religious leaders are working hard to make sure everyday tensions between Christians and Muslims are settled quickly, in hopes they will not flare into something more. “If you start fighting,” N’Djamena Pastor Kakesse Ezéchiel remembers telling two youth, “you will light a fire.”
That fire, in a way, is Chad’s story — a series of wars, uprisings and unrest since a few short years after the country’s independence in 1958, often tied to tensions between the Muslim north and Christian south.
The son of a pastor who built a shed on his land for the Muslim sheepherders in his southern Chadian village, Ezéchiel may be particularly poised to reach across boundaries for peace.
But when he talks about this desire, it’s rooted in another part of his history.
“I was born the year the first war events began in Chad,” says Ezéchiel. “Since 1965 — look, I’m 40-something years old — I’ve lived through war.”
He’s had enough of conflict, enough of those who would use religion to pit the people of Chad against each other.
“Muslims are my brothers. Catholics are my brothers,” he says with urgency. “And we cannot use our differences to divide us.”