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The Imam
& the Pastor

World Premiere at the United Nations

01 December 2006

“There’s been no event like this in my twenty years at the United Nations,” said a Counselor from the Nigerian mission, speaking of the world premiere of the “The Imam and the Pastor,” at the United Nations headquarters in New York on November 28th. The occasion was hosted by the Nigerian Permanent Representative to the UN, and was received enthusiastically by the 170 diplomats, UN officials and other guests.

Introducing the film, Ambassador Simeon Adekanye described the work done by Pastor James Wuye and Imam Mohammed Ashafa, both of whom were present, as “a case study in grass-roots mobilization for reconciliation and reconstruction.” He said that their work had been recognized at the highest levels of the Nigerian government and was a testimony to what could be achieved through dialogue.

Margaret Vogt, representing Ibrahim Gambari, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that the lessons of their experience transcended Nigeria and spoke to the heart of the UN’s mission to promote peace and reconciliation. She was particularly impressed, she said, that there are no external actors in the film. The initiative is “home-grown.” “The UN Department of Political Affairs intends to use it as a tool of Conflict Prevention,” she said.

Earlier in the day, the film was screened privately for Carolyn McAskie, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding, and Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins of Angola, President of the new Peacebuilding Commission. The Angolan, who described the film as “powerful,” suggested that its message was needed urgently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ms. McAskie said the film underlined that peace must begin in the hearts of people and spread from there to the family, the community and the nation.

At a time when many in the world are wondering whether friendly relations are possible between those of Muslim and Christian background, the Nigerian protagonists of this film emphatically assert that they are.

In recent years, Nigeria has been rocked by ethnic and religious conflicts, with tens of thousands killed and whole communities devastated. In the 1990s, Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa led opposing, armed militias, dedicated to defending their respective communities as violence broke out in Kaduna, northern Nigeria. In pitched battles, Pastor James lost his hand and Imam Ashafa’s spiritual mentor and two close relatives were killed.

Now the two men are co-directors of the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Mediation Centre in their city, leading task-forces to resolve conflicts across Nigeria.

At the premiere, the animated audience was hushed at poignant moments and roared with the laughter of self-recognition at other moments when the protagonists described their ongoing struggles to overcome distrust of the other. “We stay together for the human family,” said Pastor Wuye, “just as a married couple sometimes stays together for the sake of the children.”

Imam Ashafa opened a lively question and answer period with a moment of silence in memory of David Channer, the British filmmaker who first recognized that their story should reach the whole world. Gay Rosenblum-Kumar of the UN emceed the occasion masterfully and recalled Channer’s calling to make known answers to the world’s ills. David’s son, Alan, produced and directed the film, and introduced members of his production team from Gaza, Lebanon and France. Rageh Omaar narrates the film.

Pastor James, who was accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, and Imam Ashafa, were interviewed live on Al-Jazeera English and introduced as the living proof that religion can play a positive role in peace making. They were also interviewed on UN Radio, which reaches a large audience worldwide.

There was also an occasion marking the launching of a new book featuring their story. Called Peacemakers in Action, it has been produced by the Tanenbaum Center for Inter-Religious Understanding, edited by Dr. David Little of the Harvard Divinity School and published by Cambridge University Press.

Imam Ashafa and Pastor James were invited to speak at St. John the Divine Cathedral in the Main Service of Sunday, in the presence of the Bishop of New York Mark Sisk. They were introduce by Dean Kowalski as a "modern day miracle", and their message was received by a standing ovation by the congregation - several of whom came to talk with them afterwards.

Following New York, the Nigerians will be in Washington, DC, where the film will be shown at the United States Institute for Peace, which has supported their work in Nigeria, at Georgetown and American Universities and at the World Bank. There will also be several private showings.