Nigerian imam and pastor heal animosity through love

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 6, 2008

One-time bitter enemies Pastor James Wuye, left, and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, centre, of Nigeria, share with Warren their journey to reconciliation and peacemaking at Cochrane Coffee Traders last week. Photo by Chris Hartnell

Cochrane’s signature mural mosaic Trust depicts in its 216 panels a diverse community beautifully knit together around mutual respect and gratitude for each other’s contributions. (See my column of Sept. 12, 2007.)

But what if our harmonious lifestyle were ripped asunder by political turmoil and religious extremism? And what if our spiritual leaders themselves were the very instigators of murderous hostilities against each other’s congregations?


No more so than it was for two onetime enemies in Nigeria’s deadly religious strife who sat together with me at Cochrane Coffee Traders the other day, the one a Christian pastor, the other a Muslim imam. These two agents of reconciliation would teach me a valuable lesson about Trust.

Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pentecostal Pastor James Wuye, of Kaduna, Nigeria, were in Canada briefly in conjunction with showings of the award-winning film, The Imam & the Pastor, the amazing story of their personal reconciliation and the initiatives they are taking to bring about healing within their fractured country.

Until the 1980s, Kaduna was a peaceful place with long-standing good relations between its Muslim and Christian populations. But overnight, as the imam and the pastor explained to me, Nigeria became a battleground, with whole communities devastated.

Pastor James lost his right hand in an attempt to protect his church. Imam Ashafa lost two cousins and an elderly mentor in a militia attack organized by Pastor James’ group. Each hated the other and wanted revenge.

But thanks to the advice of their spiritual advisors, they experienced a change of heart. Imam Ashafa’s advisor reminded him, “If you refuse to forgive those who persecute you, how can you be a true embodiment of Muhammad?” Encountering his adversary unexpectedly at a gathering of community leaders, Imam Ashafa extended an olive branch.

Pastor James was initially suspicious of his motives.

But when Pastor James’ mother took sick, he was deeply moved by a comforting visit from Imam Ashafa. “Wow!” he said. “How does a Muslim come to greet me as a Christian?” Again at his mother’s death he was visited by Imam Ashafa. “And that is what broke me to my resistance to interact with him,” Pastor James said.

Even while interacting with the imam, however, Pastor James’ hatred continued to fester, until a fellow pastor said to him: “You cannot preach Christ with hate. Christ is love, and the message you’re carrying is love.” He would have to learn to forgive.

That was Pastor James’ real turning point, he said.

Based on their new-found mutual respect, the imam and the pastor created the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna a few years ago. Their teams of Muslims and Christians travel together, holding workshops in Nigerian trouble spots in their trust-building work among community leaders.

As we finished our coffee visit, Imam Ashafa said to me, “It’s not our personality but the message that’s important.”

“Yes,” Pastor James agreed, “the key word is love.”

In Cochrane, that key word can be seen in every panel of our mural mosaic. May we follow the example of the imam and the pastor and do all in our power to carry forward that sacred trust.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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