Magazine article The Christian Century

On the Fault Line: Christian-Muslim Encounters in Nigeria

Magazine article The Christian Century

On the Fault Line: Christian-Muslim Encounters in Nigeria

Article excerpt

THE FACE OF global Christianity isn't changing--it has changed. The average Christian is no longer a white American or European but a poor black woman in sub-Saharan Africa.

No single nation represents this shift in the face of global Christianity more powerfully than Nigeria. Home to 140 million people, it is Africa's most populous nation. Nearly half of its people are Christians. It is also a nation where Christians are often in conflict, sometimes violent conflict, with Muslims.

Pastor James Wuye is one of the finest Christian leaders I met in Nigeria. Graced with a warm chuckle and a preacher's gift for spinning stories, Pastor James--as he is known--is a vocal and charismatic evangelical leader. He lives and works in the northern Nigerian town of Kaduna (which means crocodile). Like Nigeria itself, Kaduna is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. The River Kaduna divides the town's two faith communities.

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Christians live in neighborhoods called Haifa and Jerusalem, Muslims in neighborhoods called Afghanistan and Baghdad. As Pastor James explains, on a local level being a Christian or a Muslim is what gives people the right to vote in elections and is what safeguards basic rights. On a global level--as the neighborhood names reflect--religion allows those isolated and living in poverty to ally themselves with movements on the world stage.

Pastor James has a visceral understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a land where Christians and Muslims are often at odds. One of his arms was cut off in an attack by Muslim thugs more than a decade ago. At the time, Pastor James was the leader of his band of Christian warriors.

The leader of the Muslim militants was a man now known as Imam Nuryan Ashaffa. He is an eloquent religious teacher--and now Pastor James's interfaith partner. These two religious leaders, former blood enemies, are working together to bring peace to Kaduna as well as to other violence-stricken communities in Nigeria.

The story of their reconciliation centers on each man's faith. One Friday at prayer, the imam heard a sermon about the Prophet Muhammad being pelted with stones when he went to preach in a village called Taif. According to tradition, the archangel Gabriel appeared to the wounded prophet and asked if he'd like to take revenge on the villagers. Muhammad said no, he would forgive them instead.

A newfound desire for reconciliation drove the imam to seek out his nemesis, Pastor James, and to find a way to make peace. Pastor James was at first wary of the imam. But he decided that God was calling him to work with the imam to rebuild the community. The two founded the Interfaith Mediation Center, which seeks to resolve crises between these rival groups.

The Interfaith Mediation Center is located in Kaduna's tallest building, a broken-down high-rise built for an era of prosperity that never arrived. Owing to a lack of electricity, the elevator rarely works. When I first visited several years ago and climbed the stairs to the IMC office, I knew I'd arrived when I saw a plastic sign that read Peace Hall.

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Waging peace entails teaching former opponents how to reread their own holy books and go beyond catchphrases about killing unbelievers. It involves showing that the scriptures teach peace and love of neighbor.

"Our secret is spiritual intimidation from the holy books," Pastor James explained.

Neither the pastor nor the imam has strayed from strict interpretation of their respective traditions. Both are fundamentalists, believing that the other is destined for hell if he doesn't convert to the other's faith. But they work toward peaceable coexistence.

Pastor James tries to reach his fellow Christians, who range from Catholics to Pentecostals to Anglicans. Sunday morning in Nigeria offers a veritable smorgasbord of old and new traditions. …

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