Thursday, December 9, 2004

One of the most important issues facing the world could be how the Christian and Muslim worlds can live and work together without compromising the claims of their faith. I notice that the Archbishop of Canterbury is wrestling with this question.

This article first appeared on the website: in November 2004

One of the most important issues facing the world could be how the Christian and Muslim worlds can live and work together without compromising the claims of their faith. I notice that the Archbishop of Canterbury is wrestling with this question. Dr Williams was asked last month whether Muslims could go to Heaven. His replied: ‘Yes, in so far as neither I nor any other Christian controls access to heaven. It is possible for God's spirit to cross boundaries.’

Can we also cross boundaries?

I have been helped by the perspective of ‘the God Squad’ - Monsignor Tom Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman - in their book ‘How Do You Spell God’. They write, ‘We have no problem with folks who believe that their religion is right. We have no problem with folks who believe their religion is more right than any other religion. We do have a problem with people who believe they have the only right religion and then go out and hurt other people because of it.’

I recently met two men who had, indeed, been going out to hurt others because of their religion, one a Christian, the other a Muslim. They come from a country which is on the frontline of Muslim-Christian relationships, Nigeria, where thousands have been killed and dozens of mosques and churches destroyed in inter-religious strife. And their witness, standing together at an international conference in Caux, Switzerland, was powerful: two militant religious terrorists, as they have been called, now working, as they put it, ‘for the transformation of society’.

Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa is an imam in Kaduna and Rev. James Movel Wuye is a Christian pastor. They are joint directors of the Inter-Faith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, one of the most important cities in Northern Nigeria . Together they described at an Initiatives of Change conference what had ‘transformed hate into love, vengeance into reconciliation’.

In the early 1990s the two men tried to have each other killed during communal riots. Muslim extremists cut off Pastor James’s arm when he was defending his church and Christian extremists killed Ashafa’s uncle thinking it was he as well as the imam’s spiritual advisor and two brothers.

Later at a meeting at the Governor’s House they met and it was suggested to them that they might have a part in bringing healing. They were encouraged to talk and began to question the cost of the violence, finding passages in the Bible and the Koran which showed common approaches. The Imam says that as they focussed on what they could take on together rather than looking at their differences there was hope for ‘a united front against evil’. They saw their survival as a sign from God and set up an organisation to encourage dialogue.

Real friendship, however, was slower to come. ‘We were programmed to hate one another, to evangelise or Islamicize at all costs,’ says the pastor. ‘I used to want to have nothing to do with Muslims until I met Ashafa.’

A turning point for Imam Ashafa came when he heard another imam preach in the Mosque about forgiveness and the example of the Prophet. ‘At that point the concepts of forgiveness and mercy were far away from my conviction,’ he says.

It took Pastor James three years to overcome his hatred. The seeds were sewn when the imam and other community leaders visited his sick mother in hospital. ‘Ashafa was radiating love, but I’d been blinded by hate and pain,’ he says. A turning point for him was the word of an American evangelist: ‘You cannot preach to someone you hate.’

In the last few years they have worked together through their Inter-Faith Mediation Centre with a particular emphasis on bringing young Christians and Muslims together for conferences and workshops. Whenever violence has broken out they have gone together to the streets to calm tempers and find solutions. At one point Imam Ashafa protected Christian women in his home and was threatened with death by militant Muslims and Pastor James saved a Muslim woman. They have written a book ‘The Pastor and the Imam: Responding to Conflict’.

At the invitation of the state governor the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral was invited to help end the violence in Northern Nigeria . When the centre’s Director, Canon Andrew White, came to Nigeria to see how their centre could help bring the different faiths together the Anglican bishop recommended he meet Imam Ashafa and Pastor James. For five months they worked with the Centre and with other Nigerians to produce a document, the Kaduna Declaration, which in 2002 was signed in the presence of some 2,000 religious leaders by eleven Muslims and eleven Christians, all influential in the community. The document is based on the Alexandria Declaration of Religious Leaders for Peace in the Holy Land .

The document starts: ‘In the name of God, who is Almighty, Merciful and Compassionate, we who have gathered as Muslim and Christian religious leaders from Kaduna State pray for peace in our state and declare our commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed, which has marred our recent history. According to our faiths, killing innocent lives in the names of God is a desecration of His Holy Name, and defames religions in the World. The violence that has occurred in Kaduna State is an evil that must be opposed by all people of good faith. We seek to live together as neighbours, respecting the integrity of each other’s historical and religious heritage. We call upon all to oppose incitement, hatred and the misrepresentation of one another.’

Both Pastor James and Imam Ishafa want to stay faithful to their religion. ‘I always say I will die as a Christian,’ says Pastor James, ‘and I am not compromising one inch on my principles. But we are creating space for one another.’ Embracing him on the platform, the Imam said, ‘He is no more an enemy but a friend.’ They regard themselves as victims of the situation they had a part in creating. It is the very fact that they were both at the heart of the previous inter-religious violence, Pastor James told me, ‘that gives us our credibility’.

The challenge before them is great. Latest figures reveal that in the last three years 53,787 people have been killed in the fighting between Christian and Muslim groups in Plateau, just one Nigerian state.