The Imam and the Pastor: Cooperating for Peace

Interview with Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye
photo Imam Ashafa (left) and Pastor Wuye  [FLT Films-London]

Over the past two decades in Nigeria, thousands have been killed in violent clashes between Christians and Muslims. Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, a Muslim cleric, and Pastor James Movel Wuye, a Christian preacher from Kaduna State in northern Nigeria, were at first sworn enemies. Both were members of militias which fought each other in the town of Zangon-Kataf, which erupted in violence in 1992. They are now inseparable friends. They set up the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum in 1995 and also the Interfaith Mediation Centre. In 2002 they signed the Kaduna Peace Declaration with many other religious leaders. They have been awarded the Heroes of Peace Award from the New York City-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. They are now seeking to replicate their efforts through centers in Jos, Owerri and Lagos in Nigeria, and more recently they have conducted interfaith work in southern Sudan and Kenya. They have published a book, The Imam and the Pastor: Responding to Conflict, and a film, The Imam and the Pastor was released by FLT films in 2006. (See the trailer at:

SGI Quarterly: How did you move from hating each other to working together?

Pastor Wuye: I am a primary victim. It took me three years to forgive the Muslims for the hurt done to me. I had this ambition to retaliate for the hand that I lost in the conflict. Now, I have found strength to forgive them, through the inspiration I had from the Holy Bible and the Christian texts.

Imam Ashafa: The essence of Islam is faith, tradition, to shift people from hate to love, from hate to cooperation. It started from Muhammad in Mecca when he insisted that there are no slaves and no masters, we are all equal before God. When he had victory over Mecca, instead of transferring hate, he transferred love to the people of Mecca. Instead of vengeance, he transferred the hand of cooperation. And that was the spirit I later discovered in the close reading of Islam. Sincerely speaking when I tried, it was difficult. Pastor James's groups were the ones that killed my spiritual teacher, and some of our brothers. I was very sad about it

SGIQ: Is achieving peace and reconciliation easy or difficult?

Imam Ashafa: For me, building a culture of peace is a very difficult challenge. There are many walls that prevent this. For me there was the fear of the unknown and of another culture. But religion has the culture of creating an alternative to violence. If only one person is able to see the light and influence one person, then we are already creating ripples. To go beyond our fear as Muslims is to go beyond the law of reciprocity. To do for others because we are trying to get to the others’ need, across the line, across the border, because we feel it is divine to do so.

photo Celebrating a peace accord mediated by Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye in Yelwa-Shendam, an area of Nigeria that had seen bitter interreligious conflict  [FLT Films-London]

Pastor Wuye: The challenge of finding peace is when you are hurting and you need to transfer the aggression or the anger to someone or something. But when you learn through true forgiveness, then you will not blame people for what happened. Our work has impacted on quite a number of people, and we have set up structures that are now reducing crises, particularly in Kaduna. We have not stopped in Plateau State, because there are quite a few other places that we need to reconcile, for example, between the Berom and Hausa in a community called Dillimi-Kwang in Plateau State, and in Bauchi State.

Some of our colleagues are in Sudan at the invitation of the Interreligious Council. We have to replicate ourselves so another Imam and Pastor can start. We have discovered that our model also speaks to people who do not profess any faith at all.

SGIQ: How important is it for religious leaders to understand one another's faiths in today's world?

Pastor Wuye: I think it is crucial. We are not preaching compromise, nor tolerance. We are preaching that people should accept that they differ and they can do nothing about that but accept the reality. Now, in accepting the reality you explore the basic tenets of each other's faiths: While that is done, mutual respect will grow, but also you begin to love, respect and listen to the other one.

We should be sensitive to what we say as religious leaders. If we speak against or in favor of a particular faith, it can bring controversy and resentment. This can lead to violence and even to a war.

Imam Ashafa: Why wouldn't we be able to learn about others? Well, because of our fear of the unknown. The second barrier to learning about others is incapable scholars with ignorant followers. They assume they know the best of their traditions, but unfortunately they are half-baked scholars because they have the knowledge of the texts but they don't have the knowledge of the environment. They cannot conceptualize the reality of their traditions in the light of the modern challenges that they find themselves in. They are incapable because they are living in the past. They need to move into the future.

We need to move into the future with a positive mind. We have to stop judging others from our own worldview. People acknowledge different colors in the sky, the garden and the rainbow and they feel happy, but they never acknowledge the dignity and the strength of our diversity.

SGIQ: Does religion exist to help people in their everyday lives?

Imam Ashafa: Well, for me religion is a tool, it is like a compass of one's life. You should take care of God's creation. When you destroy the animals or plants, when you pollute the environment, you do the same level of harm as you do to fellow human beings. My religion is about love for all creation. That is why in Islam Muhammad says the best among mankind is he who brings benefit to others. Religion should put a smile, not tears, on the face of others.

Pastor Wuye: You do not need to verbalize to present your faith. Your character is what is in the faith. Religion should be an instrument of molding people to accept the divinity, something you experience in your heart, so that you follow your inner voice that leads to divinity. You know what is said in Christianity that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, and Islam also means Peace. If you look, most of the conflicts around the world are between Muslims and Christians. But if Christ is the Prince of Peace and Islam is Peace, then we should be experiencing double peace in the world.

[FLT Films-London]

SGIQ: What is the greatest lesson you feel you have learned personally doing this work?

Pastor Wuye: You should not judge actions on the surface. You should investigate every action or inaction. While taking an action, be careful not to hurt someone by your actions, or else you will be judged by the same judgment that you give out. I also learned to pray for every Muslim. We do not talk from our head, we talk from our heart.

Imam Ashafa: When I started, almost everybody was against me, only my family was behind me. Now, over 60 percent are behind me. The greatest happiness is to be able to realize the truth of your mission, and to be able to appreciate it. We promote the concept of debate and the spirit of dialogue. But as long as you fear death, you fear the loss of your inner world, or if you fear poverty, you can never make an impact in the world. That is the lesson I have learned.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." For the world to be safe, we have to change the scale of measure from materialism to the concept of piety and nobility. Religion can still save the world from imminent danger.