Muslim-Christian understanding came late in life for the Rev. James Wuye.
Born a Baptist, he became a Catholic as a schoolboy and as an adult decided to become an Evangelical. But as a native Nigeria – a country divided by conflict between Christians and Muslims, Wuye found himself involved in violence against his countrymen who prayed to Allah rather than the Holy Father.
The former leader of a Christian militant group, Wuye today lives with the memories of the lives he had a role in taking and the loss of his own right hand from battling Muslims in the name of Christianity. A chance meeting with the leader of an Islamic militant group several years ago has led him down the path of reconciliation and understanding.
During Georgetown's Global Leadership Forum 2009, Wuye appeared on a June 16 evening panel with the Islamic leader, who eventually became his partner -- Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa. Wuye said communication was an important part of ending the violence between them.
"If you don't communicate, you can hate someone out of fear," Wuye said during the forum's opening panel discussion in Gaston Hall. This year's forum, "Evangelicals and Muslims: Conversations on Respect, Reconciliation and Religious Freedom," was sponsored by the Center for Global Education and the university's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
The two-day forum focused on three specific areas that panelists contend must occur before any kind of transformation in Muslim-Christian relations occurs -- respect, reconciliation and religious freedom.
Wuye and Ashafa sat on the opening panel as well as a June 17 panel discussion about reconciliation. The pastor and imam shared how they became peace activists and how in 1995 they founded the Interfaith Mediation Centre of Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Kaduna.
Kaduna, a city in Nigeria's Middle Belt, is an area between the country's northern and southern regions. Nearly 90 to 95 percent of the northern region is Muslim, while most of the country's 50 million Christians reside in the southern region.
Realizing they had more in common than not, Wuye and Ashafa made a peace agreement to promote a nonviolent coexistence among the religions in their country.
"We come from the same region. … we are all black … we are all Africans … both colonized by the British," said Ashafa. "Never again will I encourage a person to use religion negatively."
Within the last 10 years more than 5,000 have died in Nigeria over religious clashes; houses of worship have been burned and destroyed; damaged homes have left thousands displaced; and violence and unrest have ensued over everything from disputed elections to a controversial Danish cartoon about the Prophet Mohammad.
Where Wuye and Ashafa have been lauded for their efforts to build interreligious dialogue and understanding, Georgetown professor John Esposito wondered how far religions and societies have come in truly embracing Muslim-Christian understanding or respecting each other's religions.
"On the one hand, we have taken three steps forward. And on the other hand, I believe we have taken two steps back," said Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "In a world of globalization, we talk about how interconnected we are, but religion has its transcendent side and its dark side."
Esposito, who also served on the opening panel, said the transcendent side shows how people of all faiths can come together; live and work together for a common goal. "The downside is that we do live in a world where religion still reinforces and legitimates the dark side – the violence," he added.
Dalia Mogahed, a senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, said she personally has experienced both sides, most notably after Sept. 11.
"As most of you will notice, I am visibly Muslim," Mogahed said referring to the hijab adorning her head. "On that day, not only was our country attacked, but immediately our faith was implicated and blamed for the attack."
She and her husband were scheduled to move from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh on the very day Islamic extremists demolished the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, attacked the Pentagon and attempted another attack with a hijacked plane. Out of fear, the couple waited a day to travel across the country. When they began their trip the next day, they found themselves so fearful that they did not even want to stop for gas. Soon after making it to their new home in Pittsburgh, the couple invited their neighbors over in an effort to quell the fears of both households may have been feeling.
For Mogahed's neighbors, the thought may have been, "Oh, look who's moving in next door on Sept. 12; this Middle Eastern couple," she recalled while laughing.
Little by little, Mogahed said she and her husband had to chip away at the fear; the fear of getting used to a new area; the fear of going to the grocery store and being blamed for terrorist attacks; even the fear of going to worship services.
"That first Friday, we actually got alerts from several organizations that said it would be unsafe to go to that first Friday prayer; that first Friday after 9/11; that it would be a potential target for backlash," she said.
But she and her husband made the decision to go anyway, and they realized that half the congregation was filled with Christians and Jews who had come to the prayer service in a show of solidarity.
"That courage and compassion completely transformed our outlook … and removed that fear," Mogahed added.
Chris Seiple, president of the faith-based Institute for Global Engagement, rounded out the Tuesday evening panel by reiterating the importance of having interreligious dialogue and noted how the forum's goal was to address paths toward better religious understanding. He summed it up as "Muslims and Christians working in a practical way using the best of their faith to defeat the worst of religion."
The forum's focus on Muslim-Christian understanding falls in line with Georgetown's mission as a Catholic and Jesuit institution, said John Borelli, special assistant to the president for interreligious initiatives who also served as chair of the second day's panel on religious freedom.
"The university promotes interreligious understanding as one of the values essential to the mission of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits," Borelli said. "For two years, Georgetown, through the president's office, has sponsored ongoing dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals for the common good, and we are especially pleased to facilitate this event bringing Evangelicals and Muslims together for dialogue."