As the world focuses on potential military advances against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it risks overlooking another vast region where militant Islam is a growing threat to the Church – in the continent where the Church is growing fastest: Africa.
Amongst other factors, the chaos in Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi – characterised by easy access to weapons of all sorts combined with the increasing presence of jihadists – has had a spill-over effect into Africa’s vast Sahel region. This spans the African continent from Senegal in the west to western Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east. (The ‘Sahel’ describes the ecological and geographic region between the Sahara Desert and the humid and fertile savannah belt north of Africa’s tropical rainforest).
The most dramatic example of this Islamist militancy is in northern Mali, where Islamist militants and foreign fighters made common cause with Tuareg rebels to take over a large portion of the country in 2012. For most of the year, until the French military were forced to intervene, armed Islamist groups ruled the region, banning the practice of other religions and desecrating and looting churches and other places of worship.
In addition to the main group involved then, the jihadist Ansar Dine, other militant groups active in the Sahel region include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and Islamic State (IS).
A new report from Open Doors International, a charity providing support to the global Church under pressure, shows that the rise of Islamist militancy in the region is undermining freedom of religion. According to the report, puritanical and militant versions of Islam (particularly Salafism/Wahhabism) are increasingly taking root – in a manner that reflects recent developments in the rest of the world – as a result of Islamist missionaries and NGOs from the Middle East, funded by (until recently) oil-rich Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Sahel, which encompasses parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, has been predominantly Muslim for centuries. Due to a mix of environmental, demographic, economic and political factors, all the states that exist in this region are very fragile.
Troops from Mali and Niger, supported by their French counterparts, conduct regular joint operations to hunt for militants in the western part of the region.
The report indicates that the Islamist groups in the region are very hostile to Christianity and show this through violent acts. Northern Mali has witnessed violent attacks against Christians and churches – notably in 2012, during jihadist occupation. There have also been a series of abductions by jihadist groups, which kidnap Christian workers not only to finance operations through demanding ransoms, but also to deter Christians from working in the region. The Swiss missionary, Beatrice Stockly, kidnapped in Timbuktu in January, is still being held hostage by AQIM.
In neighbouring Niger, Islamists burned down more than 70 churches, as well as Christian homes, schools and orphanages, in a series of arson attacks in January 2015.
Islamist groups in the Sahel, like others elsewhere, don’t tolerate other Muslims who adhere to a version of Islam different from their own. Violence and terror is their preferred modus operandi. The report suggests that any further increase in their numbers and influence would add to the difficulties Christians are facing.
Even if these groups do not succeed in imposing Sharia and establishing Islamic “caliphates” at a national level, they will still contribute to the overall radicalisation of the population and the spread of an extremist and intolerant version of Islam, says the report. It says this has created an environment in which any Christian outreach ministry – not to mention the very existence of the Church itself – faces violent resistance.
The radical militancy of jihadist groups in the Sahel is also spilling over further south and giving rise to terrorist attacks in predominantly Christian parts of West Africa, notes the report. The attack on the Grand-Bassam resort in Ivory Coast (March 2016) has highlighted the vulnerability of these countries.
In the long-term, unless these groups are defeated, it is very likely that they will intensify their campaign of terrorism and violence in southern Nigeria and other West African countries which have thus far been relatively spared from terrorist activism, warns the report.
It concludes that the situation for Christians in the Sahel is precarious. It says the region is becoming a new major hotspot for Islamist groups, many of which have allied themselves to international terror franchises like IS and al-Qaeda. It is very important that the countries in the region strengthen their cooperation against these militant groups, says the report, adding that countries outside the region capable of providing assistance should also help.
In addition to robust and decisive military action, the report says it is also important not to adopt a purely one-dimensional approach. The socio-economic and political realities in the region, of which the militant groups take advantage, also need to be transformed, it says. It is only when these underlying realities are changed that Christians and non-Christians will be able to enjoy security and freedom in the region.
The assassination of a French tourist by militants in Algeria has raised the fear of new terrorist attacks in the country. Hervé Gourdel, 55, was beheaded on Sept. 24 by a radical Islamist group “Soldiers of the Caliphate,” linked to Islamic State in Iraq, in the northeastern region of Kabylie.
Gourdel, who was an experienced hiker, was kidnapped on Sept. 21, along with five Algerians, but his companions were released 14 hours later.
His murder has sparked a wave of indignation and anger, notably via social media. It reminds Algeria and the world of the civil war of the 1990s, also known as ”The Black Decade” when more than 150,000 people died violently, while thousands of others went missing. This followed the annulment of an election won by an Islamist group, after which the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) sought to gain power, opposed by the Algerian military.
Now, members of the Christian community in Bejaia, one of the main cities in Kabylie, are particularly concerned over the threats posed by militants. “If we consider the fate reserved by IS fighters for Iraqi Christians, there is genuine reason to express concerns over the church in Algeria. That is why we must be vigilant,” said Omar, 31, a member of a Protestant church in Bejaia.
For Selma, 26, another Christian in Bejaia, the church constitutes a potential target for terrorists, who have shown “their desire to establish an Islamic theocratic regime everywhere they stamp their feet, to the cost of other beliefs.
“Frankly, I am worried. Christians should be mobilized in prayer against this approaching darkness.” READ MORE
VOP: Please pray for Christians needing Divine peace and to not be overcome by fear.
TIZI OUZOU, Algeria (Morning Star News) – A Muslim woman in this northern Algerian city seeks to divorce a convert from Islam because of his new faith, while her brother and lawyer suggest he should be killed for apostasy.
At a session for the purpose of reconciling the couple yesterday, the judge suggested the first option would be for Ali Touahir to recant his new faith, Touahir told Morning Star News, pointing out that the judge’s hijab, or face covering, indicated she was a devout Muslim.
“The first question the judge asked was, ‘Now then, Mr. Touahir, what have you decided?’” the 52-year-old Touahir said. “And I answered, “Madame, what do you want me to tell you? There is nothing that has changed…”
His wife, Makhtour Wahiba, then interrupted him, saying he was stubborn, he did not want to change and he wished to remain a Christian, he said.
“I then took the floor to ask my wife not to cut me off, but to let me speak,” Touahir told Morning Star News. “So I added, ‘If there is a change, it would be in my heart, which neither you nor my wife can see or understand. My faith in God is personal; this is a matter between me and God alone. ”
Glaring at him, he said, the judge raised her voice in replying, “Mr. Touahir, that is precisely why your wife cannot continue to live with you under the same roof.”
Wahiba (or Ouahiba) left him in June 2013, six months after he was baptized, by having him take her and their 7-year-old daughter to her mother’s home and then refusing to leave it; their daughter, Imane, remained with her, and Wahiba has forbidden him from seeing her.
“I felt I was betrayed not only by my wife, but also by her brothers in this,” Touahir said.
He later later met with one of Wahiba’s brothers, who openly threatened to kill him for converting, he said.
Touahir has been married to Wahiba since 1997. His wife seeks thousands of dollars in support, and at the hearing yesterday (Jan. 22) she reiterated her demand that Touahir be prohibited from seeing Imane. The judge, however, disagreed.
“I told the judge that my wife has forbidden me from seeing my daughter,” Touahir said, his eyes red with grief. “I told her, ‘I have not seen my daughter for over a month; it’s just that she dared to change my daughter’s school without even informing me. What right has she to do this?’”
The judge then informed Wahiba that she had no right act in this manner, but when she requested that Wahiba allow Touahir to visit the girl, Wahiba refused.
“She exclaimed in response to the judge, ‘No, I will never let him take her or see her – my daughter is Muslim, and I do not want him to poison her with his Christian ideas,’” Touahir said. “Fortunately, the judge did not let her, replying, ‘No, madame, the law authorizes him to see his daughter, and you are obliged to obey or we will be forced to use the law.’”
After getting Wahiba to agree to let Touahir see Imane on Friday (Jan. 24), the judge adjourned the session and said the case would be resumed next week.
Touahir was baptized on Dec. 29, 2012, months after a friend provided him the message of salvation by faith in Christ, and his friend’s personal conduct impressed him, he said. He attended a church worship service and received a copy of the New Testament, and after reading it decided to give his life to Christ, he said. He continues to worship at the same church, undisclosed for security reasons.
Touahir’s own conduct changed after converting, he said, as he remained gentle, patient and kind through Christ in the face of his wife’s strident and frequent objections to his faith. Before she left him, every day Washiba threatened him and told him to abandon his faith, he said.
“‘You brought sin into the house,’ was her incessant language,’” he said. “‘You have denied the faith of our ancestors, you are deceived, return to reason.’”
Her Islamist brothers persuaded her to seek a divorce through the courts, he said. In court documents, her attorney states that Touahir was born a Muslim from a Muslim father and grandfather.
“But now he is going the wrong way by converting to Christian faith and has started going to church, which is against sharia [Islamic law],” attorney Djouder Mahd wrote. “It is not possible that my client still remain under the same roof with a man who has renounced his religion, as he became apostate; and we are not ignorant of the punishment that is due an apostate under sharia [death].”
Algeria does not operate under sharia, and apostasy and conversion are not illegal, but the constitution declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic morality, according to the U.S. State Department. Proselytizing by non-Muslims is a criminal offense, carrying a maximum punishment of 1 million dinars (US$12,845) and five years in jail.
The constitution provides for religious freedom, but other laws, policies, and practices sometimes restrict religious freedom, according to the State Department’s 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom.
TIZI OUZOU, Algeria (Morning Star News) – Nearly nine months since an Algerian court last heard his case, a Christian convert from Islam still awaits a ruling on the appeal of his unusually harsh sentence for allegedly “proselytizing” and defaming Islam and its prophet.
Krimo Siaghi (also known as Karim Siaghi) was arrested on April 14, 2011 in Oran, 470 kilometers (292 miles) west of Algiers, after a religious discussion with a phone shop merchant. Prosecutors had requested a sentence of only two years in prison and fine of 50,000 Algerian dinars (US$690), but Siaghi was sentenced to five years – the maximum under Algerian law – and a fine of 200,000 dinars (US$2,760).
The judge wrote in his May 2011 decision, “He denied the allegations, but his apostasy is a presumption of guilt.”
While Islam is the state religion in Algeria, apostasy (leaving Islam) and conversion are not illegal, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom.
Siaghi, a 33-year-old married father of a toddler girl, told Morning Star News that after his arrest, police officers and the judge threatened him.
“You’re possessed by the devil,” one of the officers shouted at him, said Siaghi. He said another police officer threatened, “If you were my brother, I’d kill you.” Several policemen interrogated the “renegade” in turns, he said.
The judge who handed down the verdict told him before the hearing, Siaghi said, that leaving Islam for another religion was a crime, and, “You’ll regret it.”
Siaghi, who is not in prison pending his appeal, said he had gone to his neighborhood phone shop where the merchant questioned him about his religious beliefs. After Siaghi told him he did not believe in Islam since meeting his Savior, Jesus Christ, the seller tried to force him to recite the creed for converting to Islam. When Siaghi refused, the seller filed a complaint of “proselytizing” – trying to change another’s religion, whereas “evangelizing” is proclaiming the work of Christ in one’s life – and defaming Muhammad and Islam.
Siaghi denies he said anything against Islam. The phone shop seller failed to appear at the hearing, though his statement of the accusations were read in court.
The punishment the prosecutor requested was the minimum for Algerians guilty of insulting Muhammad or denigrating “the dogma or precepts of Islam, be it via writings, drawings, statements or any other means,” according to Article 144 of the Algerian Penal Code. Algeria’s Law 06-03 outlaws proselytizing Muslims and the distribution, production and storing of material used for that purpose. The Sate Department notes that the law makes anyone criminally liable who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using to this end establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training … or any financial means.”
The merchant had reportedly said he saw Siaghi give a Christian CD to another person, but Siaghi said the seller did not include that claim in his court statement. Siaghi’s lawyer said prosecutors presented no evidence against him.
More than a year later, another hearing took place on Nov. 19, 2012 at the Criminal Court of Oran. Siaghi’s lawyer, Mohamed Belkacem, told Morning Star News that the merchant, his brother and his nephew, a minor, all present in the shop during the exchange, falsely testified that Siaghi had insulted Muhammad and the Koran, and that he had tried to persuade them to convert to Christianity.
A report detailing the charge by the three witnesses was to be forwarded to the judge of the Court of Appeal of Oran. The appeals court was to schedule another hearing at which a ruling would be handed down.
Christian leaders in Algeria believe Algerian officials influenced the judge’s harsh sentence and that court delays after a conviction are designed to avert international attention as well as appease Islamist anger; meantime, Christians languish in legal limbo. In a climate of intolerance exacerbated by behind-the-scenes manipulations, many Christians believe religious freedom has been subjugated to ideological interests as authorities have stepped up prosecution of Christians to show good will toward Islamists.
Algeria’s population of 37.1 million is more than 99 percent Sunni Muslim, according to the State Department. Christians account for only .28 percent of the population, according to Operation World.