Islamist drive threatens Christians across continent

When French troops rushed to Mali this January, it was hoped their high-tech deployment would halt an Islamist insurgency that seemed poised to spread through Saharan Africa.

Half a year on, with the rebels pushed back, the French have mostly withdrawn and there have been pledges of international aid to get the land-locked country back on its feet.

But the Islamist onslaught has continued elsewhere, rearing its head most recently in the Central African Republic. This time the world has paid less attention, while local Christians face hardship and suffering.

Reign of terror

“Churches have been routinely robbed and pillaged here, while Muslim mosques have been left untouched — so it’s hardly surprising we’re deeply concerned,” Msgr. Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, secretary-general of the Central African Republic Episcopal Conference, told Our Sunday Visitor.

“Our public institutions aren’t functioning, and our hospitals have been ransacked and closed, leaving the sick and destitute without care,” he added. “This is why we’re urgently seeking help in restoring and maintaining peace.”

Insurgent groups calling themselves Seleka (“Alliance”) launched an offensive in December, accusing then-President Francois Bozize of reneging on promises to share power. This time there was no intervention.

On March 26, led by Arab-speaking Muslims, with fighters from Chad and Sudan, Seleka captured the capital, Bangui, and instituted a reign of terror after suspending the parliament and constitution.

In a May statement, the Church’s Justice and Peace Commission said people had been left scarred and traumatized by gun-battles in Bangui, while Catholic dioceses and parishes had “paid a heavy price in damage.”

A convent in Bossembele was sacked, a parish rector from Kassai was robbed at knife-point and a pregnant Catholic woman was killed by rebels in the capital.

“This is a rebellion of religious extremism with evil intentions, characterised by the profanation and programmed destruction of Christian buildings,” said the commission report, signed by Bishop Albert Vanbuel of Kaga-Bandoro.

Long rebuilding effort

In Mali, ethnic Tuareg rebels overran most northern provinces during 2012 in a bid to establish a separate state, operating alongside Ansar Edine, which recruited from Islamist fighters driven out of neighboring Libya by the 2011 fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

France, the former colonial power, intervened to prevent the insurgents from seizing more of the country after imposing strict Shariah law and vandalising northern towns such as the fabled Timbuktu.

By the end of January, backed by fighter jets, the French contingent had pushed the rebels back to the mountainous Algerian border. And by April, it had begun withdrawing, leaving security in the hands of neighboring African states under a United Nations mandate.

Yet with guerrilla operations continuing, with sporadic attacks on churches and presbyteries, Church leaders fear the Islamists could still regroup.

“Sadly, our country is still effectively at war,” Bishop Jean Gabriel Diarra of San, Mali, told Catholics in a pastoral letter. “Even if the sound of cannons has eased a little, the nation is still in danger, menaced by acts of terrorism, social conflict and civil war. Our duty as believers is to be like Moses on a front of prayer and contemplation.”

Mali’s 200,000-member Catholic Church’s six dioceses make up just 1.3 percent of the population of 15.5 million, nine-tenths of which is Muslim.

The bishops conference backed the French intervention, and promised acting President Dioncounda Traore it would seek a “mobilization of the Christian community” to help secure Mali’s future.

However, the conference’s secretary-general, Father Edmond Dembele, told OSV he now feared “acts of revenge” against Tuareg and Arab citizens, and said the Catholic Church would urge local inhabitants not to “confuse ethnicity with rebellion.”

Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako would be ready to work with its High Islamic Council to assist reconciliation, Father Dembele said, and to “act as a bridge” between the discontented northerners and the sub-Saharan population of the south.

“Most Malians, Muslims included, are tolerant — they’re friendly to Christians and respect Catholic places of worship,” the bishops conference secretary-general told OSV. “But it will take at least a year to repair what was destroyed and replace what was taken away. For this, we’ll also need justice, reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Church attacks

Elsewhere on the continent, horrific scenes are common in Nigeria, where an anti-Western Islamist movement, Boko Haram, has massacred Christians in a campaign to impose Shariah nationwide beyond the 12 northern states where it already officially operates.

Christian churches have welcomed the Nigerian government’s declaration of a state of emergency in parts of the north.

But on May 15, a regional head of Nigeria’s inter-church Christian Association was killed by Boko Haram in retaliation. Some prominent churchmen, including Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian Catholic Bishops Conference, have doubted whether the emergency can stem the violence.

There have been signs the Islamist campaign could be spreading to Tanzania, where a Catholic parish was attacked at Arusha on May 5, leaving three dead and 60 injured.

The blast, during a Mass, narrowly missed maiming the Vatican’s nuncio, Archbishop Francisco Padilla; and although religious leaders quickly came together, there have been reports of growing Christian-Muslim tensions in the country.

In neighboring Kenya, several churches have been targeted in similar bomb attacks. Islamists linked to al-Qaida warned of revenge when Kenyan troops invaded Somalia two years ago to help quell another Muslim insurgency there.

Father Adam Koscielniak, a Polish missionary, sees the systematic targeting of Christians as an alarming development, and questions whether national governments can hold the Islamist drive in check.

Church torchings and death threats against clergy are now common, Father Koscielniak says, while police and local authorities have advised Christian communities to be vigilant and take extra security.

He thinks the attacks reflect a struggle for power and control, as much as any religious fanaticism. “For many years, we believed we were an oasis of peace, but it’s turned out this was a house of cards,” the priest told Poland’s Catholic information agency.

“The Islamicization of the African continent is progressing in an organized, intensive way and beginning to take violent form with a bloody face.” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.