The Imam and the Pastor, Mohamed Ashafa and James Wuye, are a Nigerian Muslim and Christian who have worked tirelessly for the sake of peace and reconciliation between their countrymen. Formerly bitter enemies in armed conflict, in which Wuye lost his hand and Ashafa’s spiritual mentor was murdered, they have now forgiven each other. Furthermore, they use both their personal example and their Early Warning and Early Response monitoring system to limit the escalation of violence, as is sadly common in Nigeria.
Though their focus is at home, the Imam and the Pastor have traveled the world, helping to solve conflict and spread their message abroad. It was in this effort they were invited to Egypt by the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU), presenting two workshops in Alexandria and Cairo.
During the Alexandria workshop they were interviewed by Salwa Uthman of Alexandria Magazine, at which CAWU was also present. The following records an important glimpse into Nigerian society, the origins of conflict, and their view on the state of Egypt, post-revolution.
Alexandria Magazine: Please give us an overview of Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria.
Wuye: During the 1980s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict greatly affected Nigeria, especially in the schools. This trend was amplified by religious leaders who would misrepresent their holy books, which then encouraged people to descend into conflict.
Recently, politicians have appropriated religion into their campaigns, asking people to elect them on the basis of their religious affiliation. Relations have been damaged, to the extent that over 100,000 people have lost their lives in this misunderstanding of religion. Most of these deaths have been among the poor.
AM: How did you get to know each other? Is it unusual for a Muslim and a Christian to cooperate in this way?
Wuye: It may be we are the only people in the world who used to fight each other but now are friends and work together for peace.
In 1995 we were both invited by the governor of our region to participate in a children’s immunization project sponsored by UNICEF. While there, a journalist who knew of our stories away from violence brought us together, made us to grasp hands, and encouraged us to work together for peace. At this point we began talking to each other.
AM: What is your view of sectarian conflict in Egypt?
Ashafa: To speak of Nigeria first: Our founding fathers were Muslims and Christians who worked together to build the nation, but a hurt developed between the colonialist British and the Muslims in the north. There, an Islamic system had been in place for centuries, but the colonialists replaced this with an English system.
Muslims then split into three groups. Some rejected the British queen altogether and moved to Sudan. Others separated themselves from the system and isolated from government contact. The third group decided to join the government and seek to use it to reestablish the glories of Islam.
Unfortunately, the colonial government employed this third group to exploit the non-Muslim populations in the south, using them as tax collectors. These animist peoples eventually became Christians and developed animosity toward the Muslims.
These pains have remained since Nigerian independence, and all problems can quickly take on religious dimensions. It is not unusual for a small conflict to develop into a big issue.
This colonial heritage is shared between Nigeria and Egypt. In Egypt, Muslims and Christians have lived together for centuries, but recently the relationship has been getting sour, as we saw in Imbaba.
Your problems are minor compared to ours, but we have seen our problems explode, and we don’t want to see your problems degenerate as ours have done. Overall, we are very proud of Egypt. Behind us, you are the 2nd most populous country in Africa.
AM: How do you describe your work, and why did you set it up?
Wuye: Our work is non-governmental, non-political, and focused on civil society. We set it up for three reasons: First, to prevent conflict from happening. Second, to mediate between those in conflict. Third, to build bridges and encourage forgiveness.
We do work with the government at the grassroots level if requested to help solve community problems. But we do not work for the government.
AM: Do you have support from the government?
Wuye: Moral support, yes. Financial support, no.
Ashafa: In terms of the community, people are divided. Some think that we betray each other’s particular religious group. Others believe we are compromisers, and benefit from the support of the West. Most people, though, the silent majority, believe we are doing the right thing.
AM: What is your organizational structure?
Wuye: We are composed only of Nigerians, aiming to be equal in number between Muslims and Christians. In our headquarters we are fourteen people, seven and seven. We have at least one Muslim and one Christian volunteer in 36 of the Nigerian states.
Ashafa: We also have worked in Sudan, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burundi, South Africa, Bosnia, and Iraq. We have also presented our story in many other nations.
AM: What is the concept of religion in Nigeria?
Ashafa: According to the BBC World study in February 2003, Nigeria is the most religious nation in the world. And according to the Bettleman Foundation study in 2007, it has an 82% rating on religious sensitivity. Among the traditional Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria are emerging Salafi and evangelical trends.
It is not possible to say that religion in Nigeria is moderate, since our great religious sensitivity can lead easily to explosions of violence, especially in the north. But, it is not proper to call it extremist either, though we do have radical movements that name themselves after Gaza, Kandahar, and the like.
AM: What word do you have for Muslims and Christians in Egypt?
Wuye: We know you are for peace. We watched during your revolution as Muslims and Christians protected each other during times of prayer. Continue this relation. God bless Egypt.
Ashafa: Egypt is the hope of the Arab world. You are going through a democratic process – make sure it is non-violent. We are proud of Egypt, and hope you can consolidate your gains in the September elections.