AKRON, Pa. – Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is planning a relief effort to respond to the needs of thousands of people forced from their homes by violence in the city of Jos and outlying areas of Nigeria’s Plateau State.
Simmering tensions between Christians and Muslims in Jos erupted into violence on Sunday, Jan. 17, and escalated through coming days. Buildings and homes burned, more than 400 people were killed and thousands were forced to flee.
MCC is providing an initial $17,390 to help meet the needs of displaced people, working through Emergency Preparedness Response Team, an interfaith network of 10 Nigerian organizations that help respond to and mediate conflicts in Plateau State.
“With the curfew and cold weather, it will be important to respond with immediate emergency items, such as food, blankets, mats and kitchen utensils,” said Willie Reimer, MCC’s director of Food, Disaster and Material Resources.
MCC, which has worked since 2001 to promote peace-building and to address tensions between groups of people including Christians and Muslims in Jos, was instrumental in helping form the EPRT in 2005.
MCC Nigeria representative Brenda Hartman-Souder said EPRT members have registered 34,000 internally displaced people and are working to coordinate a relief effort.
In coming weeks, MCC will assess how to respond long-term. Last year, MCC helped sponsor a Plateau State Peace Practitioner’s Forum and plans to sponsor another one in March if possible. Hartman-Souder notes she hopes the forum, with both Christian and Muslim participants, will yield ideas for a collaborative response to the bitter conflicts. However MCC regional peace advisor Gopar Tapkida, of Abuja, Nigeria, warned that Muslim and Christian participants will first need to meet separately to debrief, talk together and grieve.
Nigeria’s population is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, and Jos is between the predominantly Muslim north and the south, where Christianity and traditional religions are practiced.
Violence may be perpetrated along religious lines, but it is deeply rooted in political tensions and access to resources and political power. Riots killed some 1,000 people in Jos in 2001 and hundreds more in 2008. While there are still debates about what exactly sparked this round of violence, rumors of attacks and tensions between Christians and Muslims had grown significantly in the days before it erupted.
Military forces took control of the city last week, and normalcy is starting to return. But rumors of plans for more violence are still prevalent, Hartman-Souder said, and many do not trust the military.
She and her husband Mark Hartman-Souder serve as MCC Nigeria representatives and live in Jos, where MCC is based, with their two children Greg and Val, all of Syracuse, N.Y. No MCC staff members were physically harmed in the violence, but Hartman-Souder writes that the events of the last week have affected all of MCC’s work and staff in one way or another.
One MCC worker, Hyeladzira Balami, of Bukuru, a town about 15 minutes south of Jos, fled with her small children, later sharing how they witnessed violence and murder as their neighborhood descended into chaos. Friends and MCC staff helped her and her family move into Balami’s mother’s home early this week.
During the intensity of these days, it is prayer that has sustained many, Hartman-Souder stresses, and she encourages people in Canada and the United States to pray for the people of Jos and surrounding areas.
She shares thanks from Obed Dashan, pastor of a large Church of Christ in Nigeria congregation in Bukuru that was greatly impacted by the violence. “It means a lot to know that one's brothers and sisters around the world are standing with us,” Dashan, who studied at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., in the late 1980s, wrote in an e-mail to friends. “We feel your love. We find courage in your fellowship and partnership.”
While violence has happened in Jos in recent years, Hartman-Souder finds particularly tragic its spread to new areas in these days of turmoil – and mourns the increase in fear, suspicion and bitterness among people who had managed to live in peace despite diversity and simmering tensions.
“We don’t know the way forward right now,” she wrote, “but we believe that the Spirit of God is here among people who still believe in and live peace and love and reconciliation.”