Ngai Tahu Marae, Kaiapoi: Imam Dr Mohammed Ashafa and Pastor Dr James Wuye meet with leaders from the Maori, Police, and Islamic community

After Christchurch: The Imam and the Pastor Visit NZ

Friday, October 18, 2019

In search of healing

Nigel Heywood from the IofC Australia network accompanied the Imam and the Pastor from Nigeria on a peace building tour organized by IofC New Zealand, after 51 people were massacred by a 28-year old white supremacist at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in the city of Christchurch. He reports highlights from their talks with local communities.

Pastor Dr James Wuye and Imam Dr Muhammad Ashafa once led youth militias in violent combat against each other. Through the conflict, Imam Ashafa’s spiritual mentor and two cousins were killed. Pastor James lost close friends and had his right hand cut off. Both men were consumed with hatred and were determined to destroy the other. 

From this point of bitterness and trauma, they individually went through a powerful process of reconciliation. It took many courageous steps over three years but that transformation became the foundation of their 26 years of peace building within Nigeria and around the world.

On their seven-day trip through Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland from 21-28 August, they put forward a vision of secular and faith communities working side by side to address the deeper needs of the culture from a moral foundation, learning to reconcile and build trust, in order to create a country where ‘there is no room for hate.’

Nurture new narratives

In public forums, Pastor James praised New Zealand for giving 'a gift to the world' by the collective coming together of communities to support and protect Muslims across the country. He posed a question: 'You, [New Zealand] set the bar high, but now the challenge is how do you maintain it?'

Imam Ashafa, speaking from his own experience of hating the enemy, said, 'The Australian shooter was full of fear. He was the 1% minority that has become a threat, believing in an untrue story of the danger from another culture.

‘Rather than negative solidarities where we drive our group against the other, we have to nurture new narratives of inclusive solidarity, by creating stories that bind us. In Africa we have this concept of Ubuntu: I am, simply because you are.’

Love your neighbour

Imam Ashafa urged, 'Remove "tolerance" from the dictionary. It is a negative world view. Shift to appreciation… Where there is any sense of vengeance, transfer to forgiveness. It is not a case of "us versus them" – but "us and them." Discover the divine in your neighbour and live in service of them.'

Pastor James added that our need for peace creates the drive to 'pragmatize faith' - moving our faith from safe religious spaces into the place of public need.

'Forget about reconciling theology,' said Imam Ashafa to a group of Christian pastors. 'We don’t even agree within our own houses, but we can look at what the common needs are. Jesus taught, "love your neighbour." Why can’t this be our call together?'

Take small practical steps

At a mosque gathering, one of the Muslim men asked: 'How do we relate to Christians when they are the majority and Muslims are the minority?'

Pastor James responded, 'Take small practical steps, invite them to the mosque, give them gifts, love begets love.'

Imam Ashafa added, 'It is not about quantitative, it is about qualitative. Build values-based relationships that can stand the test of time.'

Change takes time

A group of Muslim and Christian university students asked, 'How do we engage with hate?'

Pastor James responded holding up his prosthetic hand, ‘The Koran says that we can retaliate and take an eye for an eye. I lost my hand, but if we chop off the Imam’s hand, is it going to be equal, will the two hands weigh the same? We can seek retaliatory justice, but the Koran goes on further to say, it is better to forgive. When I was fighting in the militias, I prayed to God,

'Break me and use me." That was the week that I lost my hand. I didn’t expect God to actually take my hand! But, through that, I have been able to become a bridge builder. Overcoming this bitterness of three years allowed me to be transformed.’

Imam Ashafa followed, ‘Don’t expect a thank you or a reward. Attitudinal change takes a long time. Keep going back to your enemy, they may attack or accuse you. Walk with them from a distance at first, with a way to protect yourself, but keep building trust, keep building trust. What are their needs? What are their issues of concern?’

Starting to trust

On the last day of their visit, the Imam and the Pastor called for everyone to work on two types of corruption, the outer societal corruption of greed and hate and the inner corruption of fear and division in our own hearts. Speaking to a group of 130 people in a public library, Imam Ashafa said, ‘The human heart produces what is planted in it – hatred or love. It is a garden. All troubles–natural disasters or man-made disasters–are solved by what happens in the human heart. Humanise yourself, humanise the other, move towards your enemy. Have a magnanimous heart that is free of corruption.’

Every conflict, they noted, is a chance for something new to evolve and develop.

Imam Ashafa quoted Jesus, ‘I give you peace, my peace, peace that is not of this world.’ What did Jesus mean by this peace? In a conflict we draw the line and our brain says, “I must defend, I must attack,” but the Spirit allows us to see where we are wrong. The Spirit allows us to come and confess, a space of confession. The Spirit allows us to be redeemed, to be in a space of redemption.’

At this point the Pastor chimed in, ‘This allows us to see with spiritual eyes, something new. We begin to see the conflict with spiritual eyes and to see that good can come out of it.’

  • IofC Australia supports peace building work with partners in other countries. For more about our work, contact Athalia Zwartz. Learn more about ‘The Imam and the Pastor’ here.