Ghana’s Chief Imam is a man of few words, but the 100-year-old Muslim cleric certainly knows how to make waves – by attending a Catholic Church service as part of his birthday celebrations.
Pictures of Sheikh Osman Sharubutu, sitting attentively in the pews of Accra’s Christ the King Catholic Church for an Easter service, went viral on social media.
The grand mufti, leader of Ghana’s minority Muslim community, wants to ensure that his legacy is peace – the fruit of inter-faith harmony.
His church attendance was given even more resonance as on the day he was being pictured alongside parish priest Father Andrew Campbell, Islamist suicide bombers unleashed attacks in Sri Lanka, killing more than 250 people at churches and hotels.
Those on social media championing the imam’s approach described him as a light shining in the darkness.
Not everyone was happy – some critics condemned his actions as an abomination, for a Muslim to participate in Christian worship. But Sheikh Sharubutu insisted he was not worshipping but moving the relationship between Muslims and Christians from mere tolerance to engagement.
“The chief imam is changing the narrative about Islam from a religion of wickedness, a religion of conflict, a religion of hate for others, to a religion whose mission is rooted in the virtues of love, peace and forgiveness,” his spokesperson Aremeyao Shaibu told the BBC.
The priest who befriended an imam
By Elizabeth Ohene, Accra
Unlike Ghana’s chief imam, Father Andrew Campbell, the parish priest of Christ the King Catholic Church, is certainly not a man of few words and it is fair to say he likes to stir things up a bit.
The 73-year-old was born in Ireland and arrived in Ghana in 1971 to work as a missionary. Over 48 years he has become a champion of unpopular and unfashionable causes. He has adopted the cause of lepers in particular and campaigns for them not to be stigmatized and to be treated with dignity.
His church is situated across the road from Jubilee House, the seat of Ghana’s presidency. A few months ago, he was made parish priest for Jubilee House. The cleric has stated his support for some government policies, but it is accepted he will be equally vocal when he feels the need to criticise, no matter that he might be designated the in-house priest for the presidency.
He has acquired full Ghanaian citizenship – however, he has refused to adopt some local habits. He insists on keeping to time.
Not too long ago, I attended a wedding ceremony and he started the service despite the absence of the bride. Half-way through the published programme, the bridal procession could be seen trying to make an entrance from the back door. Fr Campbell rushed down, leading the groom and stopped the bride in the middle of the aisle, where he conducted a hurried marriage ceremony and walked back to the altar to continue from where he had left off before the bride appeared.
But the combination of the peaceful Muslim cleric of few words and the trouble stirring loquacious Irish-Ghanaian priest make an unpredictable and beautiful cocktail.
Sheikh Sharubutu has been Ghana’s top Muslim cleric for 26 years and has always insisted the key tenets of Islam are rooted in peace and love, as his weekly sermons at Friday prayers at the Central Mosque in the capital attest.
Another favourite theme of his is a call to shun materialism, saying it only brings greed.
At his residence in the poor neighbourhood of Fadama, he has insisted that the gates remain open.
For years now, hundreds of township residents troop in each morning to fetch fresh water from taps at the property while others visit at night with bowls to be served hot meals for free.
It is the nature of Islamic leaders to give to charity, but his supporters say the scale of his work stands out. He has personally sponsored hundreds of students in their education at home and abroad and has also established an educational trust fund to support talented but needy pupils.
Ghana, where Muslims make up 18% of the population in the mainly Christian country, has no history of religious warfare. But relations can be fractious – and the imam has sought to douse any flare-ups.
He is a member of the National Peace Council, made up of 13 mainly religious leaders – but he is also known to intervene personally to resolve tensions.