People in conversation

The Pastor and the Imam: De-Escalating Religious Violence in Nigeria

Photo: The Pastor and the Imam

In 2008, Darren Kew of University of Massachusetts’ Conflict Resolution, Human Security and Global Governance program invited Essential Partners to lead a dialogue workshop for 20 Nigerian leaders visiting the United States through a state-sponsored cultural exchange program.

Through the same program a year later, Darren and EP Senior Associate Dave Joseph traveled to Nigeria, where they met two men who would change their lives as well as the work of their respective organizations: Imam Mohammed Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, cofounders of the Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC).

In Nigeria, where more than 20,000 lives have been lost over the past decade to outbreaks of religiously-connected violence, glimpses of peace and coexistence can seem hard to find. Joseph, who has traveled to Nigeria seven times in the last several years, explains that “extending religious tolerance and interfaith understanding is an acute humanitarian need in this country and elsewhere—and key to political stability and development.”

Hope is steadily sown through the surprising and impressive partnership of the pastor and imam, whose story has achieved global visibility over the last several years.

The two men have been working in partnership with Essential Partners since the fall of 2012 to prevent violence and help communities in Nigeria find ways to coexist across differences.

Joseph published an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor in 2013 on their work, and recently penned a blog post in the wake of the delayed elections in Nigeria.

“Antidote to terrorism, fanaticism, bigotry, and extremism”

The pastor and imam exemplify how different religious backgrounds need not divide, but rather lay a foundation of mutual respect for one another’s faiths.

Over the course of more than three years, the cross-cultural partners have created a hybrid dialogue model that supports IMC’s work to empower religious and national leaders to bridge ethnic and religious divides. The hybrid model grounds the dialogue process in its cultural context, creating a design that is uniquely Nigerian. They also use tenets from the Koran and the Bible to articulate interfaith values of preparation, interdependence, and coexistence.

Through EP's partnership and the dialogue model that has emerged, IMC has led workshops with both Christians and Muslims in nine states across northeastern Nigeria to build peace. Nearly 2,000 community members have been trained with the hybrid dialogue model, and these participants have shared their learning with countless other fellow Nigerians.

In the words of IMC’s Director of Intervention, Imam Sani Isah, “Through this training, we will have more people in the stream of work that we do and become better equipped with the know-how, skills and techniques. But most important, together we will sow a seed that will germinate and become a source of the antidote to terrorism, fanaticism, bigotry and extremism.”

De-Escalating Violence

The impact of this work was evident recently in Sokoto, in the wake of a traffic accident that threatened to explode into violence.

Muslim youth quickly gathered after a Christian man accidentally crashed his car into the house of a Muslim family. Tempers flared. Threatening words flew.

But one young man standing nearby had received IMC training from a village elder. He was able to use the tools he learned to calm the crowd. He then contacted the police. The peace was restored.

Situations like this are extreme cases, but in polarized contexts any small event can become the spark that leads to violence. The goal is not only to restore a sense of law and rights, but also to quell the tensions that exist beneath the surface, between groups with different identities.

Essential Partners' approach to dialogue reconstructs trust, deepens mutual understanding, and builds a new set of relationships that can serve as the foundation for a pluralist, inclusive, peaceful society.

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