As Nigeria battles Islamist Boko Haram, an imam and pastor spread tolerance

In Nigeria, where the Islamist militant group Boko Haram is sowing terror, an imam and a pastor team up to preach religious tolerance. The two men are former leaders of militias that once battled each other. Then they discovered forgiveness. Now, their story is a tool of persuasion.

Boris Roessler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
Nigerian pastor James Wuye (left) and Imam Mohammed Ashafa celebrate receiving the Hesse Peace Prize 2013 at the state parliament in Wiesbaden, Germany, Oct. 30. Op-ed contributor Dave Joseph writes that the two men 'are not trying to find common ground in their faiths,' but rather 'common humanity.'

Here in Africa’s most populous country, where an insurgency by the brutal Islamist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people in recent months, it is easy to despair over sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians – and between Muslims.

Yes, easy to despair, were it not for the remarkable example set by an imam and pastor in Nigeria, an oil-producing country on the West African coast whose population is evenly split between Muslims and Christians. The two men are former militia leaders whose forces directly fought each other, yet they reconciled after each was moved by a sermon on forgiveness – one preached in a mosque, and one in a church. They have been spreading the practice of tolerance and reconciliation for nearly two decades since forming the Interfaith Mediation Center here in Kaduna, in northern Nigeria, where I train staff in dialogue techniques that bridge divides of ethnicity and religion.

Each year, it seems, the two men’s message gains in global significance as Islamists and Coptic Christians clash in Egypt, Islamic sects fight in Syria and Iraq, and moderate Muslims and Christians are killed for allegedly blaspheming the name of the prophet Muhammad in Pakistan. In Nigeria, where hundreds of ethnic groups take their religions very seriously, sectarian violence has killed more than 20,000 people in the past decade. Extending religious tolerance and interfaith understanding is an acute humanitarian need in this country and elsewhere – and key to political stability and development.

But to clarify, Imam Mohammed Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye are not trying to find common ground in their faiths. “No one is interested in becoming Chris-lam,” they often say. In fact, each admonishes his own followers that “you cannot interpret the faith of the other.” Rather, what they aim toward is respect for people’s beliefs and mutual recognition of their “common humanity.”

The lives of Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye demonstrate this, and the men use their powerful personal story to challenge others to forgive and reach beyond religious differences. In the early 1990s, they each led an armed militia committed to defending his faith. Wuye lost his right hand in combat; Ashafa lost his spiritual mentor, as well as two cousins, to an attack initiated by members of Wuye’s militia.

In 1995, at a gathering of community leaders, a member of the media challenged them to make peace with each other. It didn’t happen immediately, but over the course of the next year, Ashafa initiated contact with Wuye and slowly their relationship evolved into a mutual exploration of the deep commitment that each had for his scripture. Wuye was told by a senior colleague that “you cannot preach Christ with hate in your heart and you must learn to forgive.” Ashafa heard a similar message at a mosque about the teachings of the Quran and Allah’s love for all mankind, and how the prophet forgave those who persecuted him.

That same year, they founded the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, which later evolved into the mediation center. They have worked ceaselessly since then to bring the teachings of their respective scripture to their fellow Christians and Muslims. Each is committed to spreading the “word,” and the true teachings of how to engage with those of differing religions. “It is better to dialogue with them than to deal [violently] with them,” the two men say.

The center trains youths, men, and women of both faiths to bring different religious communities together in dialogue and to mediate. It sends teams of Christians and Muslims to trouble spots and it hosts workshops and community forums. Staff put their lives on the line against “conflict entrepreneurs” who peddle sectarian violence and hatred.

Sometimes, the center’s workers are branded as “traitors” or “compromisers” and it’s impossible to bring the two religious groups together in a community, at least initially. Then, the workers meet with their own religious group, explaining their personal stories of why they changed their minds about people of the other faith. That helps pave the way for an eventual meeting of both groups.

The imam and pastor also host a weekly television talk show that has more than 2 million viewers. In 2004, when religious violence broke out in the village of Yelwa Shendem and 600 people were killed, the two men traveled to the village more than a dozen times to mediate and preach peace. Gradually, trust was restored. Eventually, the village came together in a Festival of Peace.

Progress has been slow, but steady, and the two men's work is spreading. They’ve shared their story in Iraq, Lebanon, Kenya, Croatia, and Northern Ireland, among other places. And now I and others are helping them expand their reach within Nigeria. As the mediation center’s “alternate imam,” Muhammad Sani Isah says of our cooperation: “What we do together could be explosive for the whole world, in a positive sense.” It’s the seed that can germinate, and grow to overtake terrorism, bigotry, and extremism.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger 40 years ago, I learned a local proverb: “Patience is the medicine for living in the world.” Patience, coupled with persistence and divine inspiration, are among the remarkable qualities that support Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye as they continue in their work.

Dave Joseph is a senior vice president with the Public Conversations Project in Watertown, Mass. The project, along with the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is partnering with the Interfaith Mediation Center of Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye.

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