Interfaith leaders advocating religious coexistence in Nigeria
You cannot cross the ocean with hate in your heart
The city of Kaduna has been the epicenter of violence between Muslim and Christian communities in northern Nigeria. In 1992, religious riots erupted in which hundreds of people were killed and houses of worship on both sides were destroyed. Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and James Movel Wuye were on opposite sides of the fighting, playing leading roles stirring up the violence. Both men were born in 1960 and took parallel paths to leadership among the youth in their respective communities.
James Wuye became a mapmaker by profession and a lay evangelist by conviction. He was vice-president of the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria and regularly wrote articles in their newspaper The Whole Truth. Muhammad Ashafa became a Muslim preacher and was the Secretary-General of the Kaduna chapter of the National Council of Muslim Youth Organizations. Ashafa also wrote extensively in their news bulletin.
Both leaders expressed radical, provocative ideas with uncompromising attitudes. Wuye wanted to totally evangelize Nigeria, and Ashafa worked for the total Islamization of Nigeria. When the violence exploded they were in the forefront of the fighting. Wuye lost an arm from wounds he received. Ashafa’s mentor and his brother were both killed. Ashafa’s mentor had been a Sufi hermit who once challenged him,
You cannot cross the ocean with hate in your heart. When Christian militiamen murdered the Sufi mystic, Ashafa sought revenge.
In 1995 Wuye and Ashafa encountered each other at a meeting sponsored by a women’s organization. As they talked they discovered in spite of their suspicions that they had more in common than they ever imagined. Their images of their
enemy were shattered, and that day they began a quest to work together to solve the problems of religious conflict in their community. It wasn’t easy for them.
During a Friday service at his mosque, Ashafa heard an imam talk about the story of Prophet Muhammad going to preach in Ta’if. Muhammad was rejected, stoned, and left bleeding. When an angel appeared and asked if Muhammad would like to destroy those who had rejected him, Muhammad replied,
No. This story began to work in a healing way in Ashafa’s heart, and he wept during the service. To express his forgiveness to Wuye, he visited the ailing aunt of the Christian leader, as she was in the hospital.
Meanwhile Wuye struggled with his own bitterness, having been left for dead by Muslim attackers who had hacked off his arm. Then, at a conference, ironically featuring a noted anti-Muslim speaker, a pastor challenged Wuye directly with words that echoed the Sufi mystic’s message to Ashafa:
You can’t preach Jesus with hate in your heart. Wuye says those words
As former hard-liners it was a difficult task to bring the leadership of their respective organizations into a process of mutual discovery and dialogue, but they began the process. Visits were made to the meetings of each organization. Wuye visited a mosque, and Ashafa visited a church. Symposia with Christian-Muslim dialogue were held and met with great success.
Eventually, they formed an organization for which they are co-coordinators, the Muslim/Christian Youth Dialogue Forum in Nigeria. This organization has held educational events and published books and pamphlets on interfaith mediation and peace-building. They co-authored The Pastor and the Imam: Responding to Conflict that tells their stories, explores the similarities and differences of Christianity and Islam, and calls for Christians and Muslims to work together for understanding and peace.
We planted the seed of genocide, and we used the scripture to do that, Ashafa said, referring to their earlier involvement in the inter-religious violence. So, as part of their writing and teaching on reconciliation, they have highlighted the use of their respective scriptures. They use quotes from the Bible and the Quran to explore areas of common belief and areas of disagreement between Christians and Muslims. Then, again quoting extensively from the Quran and the Bible, they show why Muslims and Christians should engage with each other peacefully rather than violently. As they write in the introduction,
Our appeal is that the two religions acknowledge the existence of other faiths and that the adherents of Islam and Christianity live harmoniously with people of other faiths.
These two leaders renamed their organization the Interfaith Mediation Centre. They have conducted many educational events related to peace building and reconciliation across religious lines. They also are active in the streets seeking to quell violence. Once, Imam Ashafa provided shelter in his own home for a Christian woman fleeing violent Muslim youths. Pastor Wuye also saved a Muslim woman at risk from Christian youths who threatened her.
Ashafa and Wuye have become key figures both in Nigeria and around the world in efforts to promote peace between Muslim and Christian communities. They both find some of their harshest critics within their own faiths as disagreements about how to interact with the other faith are very deep and intense. Both Ashafa and Wuye are committed to extending their faiths, even in the other communities. But they acknowledge that they have to find the space for coexistence, a commitment that they discovered was deeply rooted in their own religious traditions.