An 83-year-old Nigerian Muslim cleric has been honoured with the International Religious Freedom Award, given to individuals for their tireless advocacy of religious freedom at a ceremony during the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.
“They’ve risked their own reputation, their personal comfort, their own well-being, and in some cases even their lives to help strangers, many of whom practice faiths that are different from their own,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Imam Abubakar Abdullahi, along with four other religious’ leaders Mohamed Yosaif Abdalrahan (Sudan), William and Pascale Warda (Iraq), Ivanir dos Santos (Brazil) and Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud (Cyprus).
The Imam’s story as described by the US Department of State goes: On June 23, 2018, ethnic Fulani herdsmen, who are predominantly Muslim, launched coordinated attacks on 10 villages in Barkin Ladi, killing hundreds of ethnic Berom farmers, who are predominantly Christian. As Imam Abdullahi was finishing midday prayers, he and his congregation heard gunshots and went outside to see members of the town’s Christian community fleeing.
Instinctively, the Imam ushered 262 Christians into the mosque and his home next to the mosque. The Imam then went outside to confront the gunmen and he refused to allow them to enter, pleading with them to spare the Christians inside, even offering to sacrifice his life for theirs. Although the gunmen killed 84 people in Nghar village that day, Imam Abdullahi’s actions saved the lives of hundreds more.
“Imam Abdullahi’s courage in the face of imminent danger and his history of outreach across religious divides demonstrates his lifelong commitment to promoting interfaith understanding and peace,” the statement extolled.
In the U.S. Embassy of Nigeria’s “Chatting With a Hero” interview segment, Abdullahi describes when he heard gunshots near his village on the fated day.
“It was a tense moment. But I did not allow them to harm my guests as they tried to gain access to the mosque or my home,” he said during the interview. “We just kept pleading that in the name of God they should not harm anyone.”
When Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo commended the cleric’s actions in May, Abdullahi said, “God created mankind differently, but he wants us to live together in peace and harmony, and not harm each other.”
83-year-old Imam Abubakar Abdullahi receives the first-ever International Religious Freedom Award for shielding 262 Christians when herdsmen attacked 10 villages in Plateau State last year.
Muslims and Christians should see themselves first as human beings and brothers. pic.twitter.com/tG1cmBtvaQ
— Mo' (@ImoMbede) July 18, 2019
An elated President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement congratulating him that “a Nigerian national has written his name in gold in the international arena and his deeds will resonate wherever and whenever there are discussions on religious tolerance, cordiality between Christians and Muslims in the country and around the world’’.
Mohamed Yosaif Abdalrahan (Sudan)
The other African winner, Mohamed Yosaif Abdalrahan of Sudan, is a human rights lawyer at the Sudanese Human Rights Initiative (SHRI), who has “worked tirelessly to defend the rights of Sudan’s religious minorities, both in his legal casework and through public advocacy,” the department said.
He leads advocacy campaigns to protect minority religious communities and end discriminatory practices, while organising human rights training sessions for journalism, women’s rights and Sudanese youth.
“A member of Sudan’s Muslim majority, Mohamed has become a trusted ally of minority communities and has helped them navigate the country’s complex judicial system, deploying his strong technical knowledge in international human rights law and Sudanese constitutional law, and his outstanding dedication to use the law as a force for good,” the department said.