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Interfaith Dialogue Activists: Stop Politicization of Religion
Tuesday, 24 October, 2017 | 21:12 WIB
Interfaith Dialogue Activists: Stop Politicization of Religion

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The prolonged sectarian conflict in Kaduna, Nigeria, pitted Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and James Movel Wuye against each other. Like other people their age, they both attacked and killed each others' perceived enemies during the crisis of 1992. Kaduna is located 163 kilometers north of the capital, Abuja, which became a flashpoint at the center of a conflict that claimed 20,000 lives. 

Ashafa, now 58, became an Imam. He was born into a Sufi religious family, though he later became influenced by Salafism. James, now 57, and a priest, used to be an alcoholic until he joined the clergy because of his uncle, a member of the church of the Assembly of God.

Their personal conflict started because of their religious affiliations. Ashafa was Secretary-General of the Muslim Youth Council, an organization that supports the implementation of Sharia and anti-American propaganda in Nigeria. James was a member of several Christian organizations, such as the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria. When conflict broke out in Kaduna in 1992, both formed religious militias, and went to war with each other.

The sectarian struggle took a toll on the both of them. Ashafa lost two cousins and his spiritual leader. James lost his right hand. He now wears a prosthetic. For three years, all each of them wanted was to take revenge against the other. 

In May 1995, as fate would have it, they finally met face to face. This time they met not on the battlefield, but at the governor's house to discuss healthcare. Journalist Idris Musa was their mediator. According to Musa, both Ashafa and James had the power to heal the rift caused by the religious conflict in the area begun in the 1980s. The trigger was an economic collapse and ensuing political turmoil, which had led to the rise of religious extremism. 'He said to us, ¡®You both can maintain peace here if you want. I know you have the capacity'," said Ashafa.

After a long process, the two gradually reconciled. To show their commitment in keeping peace, Ashafa and James established the Interfaith Mediation Center, an organization with 20,000 members, actively encouraging interfaith dialogue, and training Nigerian youths to be peacemakers. 

Ashafa and James, popularly known as 'the Imam and the Pastor' often share their story of becoming best friends after years of bitter enmity. Both were at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta for an interfaith workshop two weeks ago held by Pusad Paramadina. 'We share our new insight, the spirit of working together between different faiths to reach a common goal: harmony and unity," James told Tempo’s Debra H. Yatim and Shinta Maharani.

What was the turning point that made you decide to be brothers, not enemies?

Ashafa: It was a chance meeting. The meeting happened on an issue of common ground that bonds us together, the issue of health. Health crosses faith, crosses religion, crosses culture. Everybody is interested in the issue of health. So, we were invited to the state government house to discuss the issue of immunization that killed many children. They wanted the faith community to come over.

How did you react?

Ashafa: My heart said, he was an enemy (pointing to James), the guy who killed my teacher and two of my cousins. How can I talk to him? I didn’t need to talk, I wanted a fight and expected revenge. I was looking forward to do to him what he did to me. Unfortunately, we were inside the governor’s house and there was a protocol. I had a smile on my face but my heart was beating.

What made you forgive each other?

James: Pastor Ina Amakuu from the Family Worship Center in Abuja said to me, "James, you can’t praise Christ with the hate you have. You have to love the Muslims." That was my turning point. The turning point was quite a long process for me; a short process for him (pointing to Ashafa). But we felt that to keep our communities together as challenged by the journalist, Maleq Idris Musa, it became an imperative. Idris is a Muslim name and a journalist who I see as one who really feels Nigeria should stay together.

Ashafa: I went to the mosque on a Friday in 1995. The imam was talking about forgiveness, and turning the enemy into your best friend; about how Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) transformed and changed the world. He said, "For you to be a true Muslim, you must identify somebody who hates you and find the ability to let go and forgive." I felt stabbed, as if he was talking just to me. From that moment, I changed my attitude—from seeking revenge to reconciling, to changing the community from being divided to being united.

Did forgiveness just occur after you listened to a sermon?

James: We started thinking how we can solve the problem. Young people were killing one another. And yet we, who were men of faith, we killed even more. How do we keep it together? Someone came down and proposed for a debate (between Muslim and Christian youths). Imam (Ashafa) came for a debate. But I proposed for a dialogue, so you don’t have a winner or a loser like you do in a debate.

Ashafa: More than that, the nation had suffered in the last 20 years. So much pain, so much inter-religious conflict. There was destruction of life, property, sacred places of worship and symbols of both Islam and Christianity.

How can people share common values when they profess to different faiths, different ideas?

James: We just respect the differences, but we encourage seeking common ground. We don’t compromise (our values). If you are a Muslim, you are not going to suddenly become a Christian. You keep your values and I keep to mine.

Ashafa: Every person is created as a unique individual. We have to be able to see this diversity in our everyday lives. The key to our interfaith dialogue is to be compassionate and respect others who are different.

Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine

 


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