Number 01/2007
The Imam and the Pastor
07 February 2007

Shamsul Akmar from Malaysia reviews a new documentary film on Muslim-Christian relations

FLTfilms, London,
Produced by Alan and David Channer, narrated by Rageh Omaar
Review by Shamsul Akmar

In an age when peace initiatives are likely to be met with scepticism, if not derision, efforts by two Nigerians, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, will definitely warm the heart.

More than that, they offer a glimmer of hope to others undertaking peace efforts but feeling their cause is all but lost.

The Imam & The Pastor is a video documentary that provides glimpses of the path taken by Imam Ashafa and Pastor James in their peace-making initiatives.

It is not a romanticised, feel-good film. It will hit viewers with the realities of a nation in conflict: the graves, the corpses by the roadsides, the fears, the uncertainties and the struggle to remain alive.

There are no heroes in this documentary, only two former enemies who found the true calling of their faiths, became friends, and believed there is still hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

The documentary starts off with Imam Ashafa standing over a row of mass graves in which lay 630 victims of the Yelwa Shendam massacre, which occurred during clashes between Muslims and Christians on the 2nd and 3rd of May, 2004.

Imam Ashafa poignantly says: 'Allah, these are your servants, sons and daughters of your servants who are victims of man’s inhumanity to fellow human beings…Allah, let their souls rest in perfect peace'.

Pastor James then joins Imam Ashafa and says: 'We are grateful to God that we’ve learnt this ability to hear one another and create a safe space for dialogue, without which we will always be assuming things from afar. And you can kill somebody based on assumption. We have learned a bitter lesson.'

These two quotes underline what the whole documentary is all about – senseless killings of innocent lives based on prejudices and suspicions and the refusal to communicate and dialogue over differences.

Images of a body left unattended and ignored by passers-by reaffirmed the fact that in recent decades Nigeria has been rocked by communal clashes between Christians and Muslims in which thousands had died.

The documentary focuses on Kaduna, one of the flashpoints for inter-faith conflict. It is here that Imam Ashafa and Pastor James had set up the Christian-Muslim Inter-Faith Mediation Centre.

Truly these men are the least likely to have become friends, let alone work for mediation and peace.

Through narration by Pastor James and Imam Ashafa we learn that they were bitter enemies whose emotional baggage was used to spark their mutual enmity.

Pastor James tells how he joined the Christian militias in the 1980s, when ethnic and religious strife first started in Nigeria.

'We say if the Muslims have spare lives, then we go borrow it. If it is one life, we can also put it on line…my hate for the Muslims, then, had no limits…'

In 1992, in one of the clashes, Pastor James lost his right hand.

Imam Ashafa relates how he was a member of a Muslim militia in Tudanwada when he and the others fought for two days without stopping.

'For 48 hours, we are killing and maiming one another. I was fighting, believing I have to defend my faith, maiming and killing the others. But at the end of the day, my spiritual teacher, a man of over 70 years old, he was murdered by the Christian community in his area.

'Two of my cousins were killed and I realised, I came to know that it is James’ group, the groups of James who have organised that militia against my group. So I was nursing, the anger is there and the motive is revenge. I want to take vengeance. And for 3 years, myself and my group were planning to eliminate some of the leaders of these groups.'

Imam Ashafa’s and Pastor James’s hatred for each other were entrenched.

But it was their religious convictions that changed them.

Pastor James began to realise that Christianity is about love and peace and he embraced this notion wholeheartedly. In the case of Imam Ashafa, it was a sermon delivered by another Imam about the Prophet Mohammed being an embodiment of forgiveness. So strongly did the sermon touch him that Imam Ashafa wept, and after the prayers he began to ask himself whether he could really forgive Pastor James.

In May 1995 the two men met, unexpectedly, at a gathering of community leaders at the Governor of Kaduna's residence.

A mutual acquaintance who introduced them, also challenged them to make peace.

'Initially, I was full of suspicions,' says Pastor James, adding that he feared Imam Ashafa was trying to identify him and his friends and attack them when the opportunity arise.

'If you see his (Imam Ashafa’s) dressing, you see like an embodiment of an Islamic fundamentalist. We see them as fanatics, as a group that believes Islam only and no other religion,' says Pastor James.

Then Pastor James’s mother was taken ill. Imam Ashafa along with some other Muslims visited her in the hospital.

After Pastor James’s mother died, and Imam Ashafa with his friends came and paid their respects, Pastor James started to change his views.

'I then visited his mosque. Well, it was like I swallowed my heart because I wasn’t sure I will come out alive. But gradually I developed confidence and he too kept coming and the relationship began to grow,' added Pastor James.

The strong relationship began to give a strong foundation to the Inter-Faith Mediation Centre and it expanded.

They started to try to broker peace between hostile religious groups in Nigeria. Travelling together in a mini-van with the words 'Peace Is Divine' painted on it they became closer, learning to respect each others faith and be tolerant over their differences.

In 2001, Imam Ashafa and Pastor James brought 11 Muslim and 11 Christian leaders to Kaduna to work on a joint peace agreement. The 'Kaduna Peace Declaration of Religious Leaders' was unveiled in the presence of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo on 22nd August 2002.

By then, their message: 'We all need peace to worship. Let us embrace it' – expressed on posters around the city – had become a clarion call.

Another milestone was organising the 'festival of peace' in Yelwa Shendam. For five months they put their energy into bringing conflicting religious and ethnic groups together. When the day for the festival came, the colourful ceremonies attracted international attention. A public apology made by leaders of these groups and their commitment to a 'Shendam Peace Affirmation' look set to spark off other similar initiatives elsewhere in Nigeria.

The film ends with images of a solitary fisherman in his boat, at peace with the tranquil river.

But there is no ending to the spirit of this documentary, nor the efforts by Imam Ashafa and Pastor James.

It is only beginning.

Shamsul Akmar is a journalist of almost two decades. He has travelled extensively and covered the war in Iraq, the insurgency in Aceh and political turmoil in Indonesia. He is currently doing his MA in War Studies at King's College, London.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0