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(World Watch Monitor) The disproportionate presence of ethnic Fulani among Islamist militants wreaking havoc in the Sahel and West Africa has led to a stigmatisation of the Fulani generally, says a Protestant pastor from Burkina Faso.
In April security forces went into Djibo, a town in the northern part of Burkina Faso and killed 31 unarmed Fulani men. The men were rounded up after their IDs had been checked.
A former inhabitant of the village told Radio France Internationale the security forces “go to the villages where these people grew up and look for their relatives. The relatives don’t support terrorism, they are living in their villages. But they detain these people who they see as complicit in terrorism”.
“There is not a very good view of the Fulani,” said Adama, himself Fulani and a pastor in central Burkina Faso who asked not to be identified by his real name for security reasons.
“They are regarded as militants taking part in jihadi attacks, causing trouble in the Sahel region. But that is not all that there is to it. Not all Fulani are terrorists and not all terrorists are Fulani. We, the Fulani, are also the image of God and one first needs to see that,” he told World Watch Monitor. In Burkina Faso the Fulani make up 6.3% of the population.
‘More serious challenge than Covid-19’
Adama studied theology in the UK but returned to Burkina Faso in 2008 to serve among his own people. “Things are not the same as they were,” he said. “Burkinabe people are under increased pressure. We have got to watch our backs all the time. What we are dealing with is a far more serious challenge than Covid-19”.
Burkina Faso has become vulnerable to the instability plaguing the greater Sahel region caused by a number of Islamist extremist militia groups. The country not only battles widespread poverty – 40.1% of the population living below the national poverty line, a power vacuum following a coup in 2014 and the spread of radical Islamist teachings have provided fertile soil.
“The terrorism activities have hit us so quickly,” Adama said. “These groups moved in and took control of areas where there was less government presence and the population had little access to education, health care etc. Many areas of Burkina’s northern and eastern regions have now become ‘no-go’ areas.”
As a result of the violence, many churches and schools in these regions have closed and people have fled to other parts of the country.
Pastor Adama has been trying to help those who decided to stay as well as other vulnerable communities. A training centre in a village in central Burkina Faso offers skills training and people can take what they have learned back to their villages: “Now many of these villages have shops, restaurants etc – things they did not have before.” His ministry also organises quarterly “community health days” in which doctors are invited to visit communities to avoid people having to travel to the nearest city for healthcare.
“In the midst of stigmatisation and the terrorism agenda which brings violence, we bring peace and transformation into these communities,” he said.
Who are the Fulani?
The Fula people, often described as the Fulani, are regarded as the world’s largest nomadic group: an estimated 40 million people dispersed across 20 nations, mostly in Western Africa. The majority resides in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal, and Niger but they also can be found in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic and Egypt.
They speak Fula languages as well as Hausa, English, French and Arabic.
The centuries-old Fulani heritage is pastoral, organized primarily around nomadic herding of cattle, sheep and goats, though segments of the Fulani farm crops or live in urban areas.
The Fulani were early adopters of Islam, participating in holy wars, or jihads, in the 16th Century that established them as a dominant social and economic force in Western Africa.
As the frontier of the Sahara Desert has moved southward, Fulani herds have gradually been pushed southward, causing conflicts with farming communities. In regions such as Nigeria’s Middle Belt, however, the conflicts have become more sinister than simple land disputes that boil over into violence. Many of the farmers belong to the ethnic Berom, mostly Christian, indigenous people, and the attacks have taken on an ethnic and religious character.
In Burkina Faso the Fulani are targeted for recruitment by terrorist groups such as Ansar ul Islam — a homegrown group which emerged in 2016 – that has been responsible for many of the attacks in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The armed violence by Ansar ul Islam and other radical groups moving in from Mali, has displaced at least 1 million people.
What Iraq’s Christians want from the West is to say the plain truth: that there is ethnic cleansing of Christians in the region and it is ongoing, Dr Tim Stanley told a meeting at the UK’s parliament last Tuesday, 9 July.
“If we don’t say what is really happening in the region, which is ethnic cleansing of both Christians and Yazidis, we allow Islamic State and other perpetrators to get away with it,” Stanley told the audience at the event, ‘The Global Persecution of Christian Minorities’, organised by the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign-policy think tank.
Since Islamic State was pushed out of the region, displaced Iraqis have slowly started to return to their communities but continue to live in fear and they continue to be vulnerable. Pockets of IS fighters are still active and the group has said it started the fires that in recent weeks torched hundreds of acres of land and crops, “owned by infidels”, in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias have moved into areas previously under IS-control, discouraging people to trade with Christians, Stanley said.
In January, a UN team started investigations in the country to collect evidence of genocide and war crimes committed by Islamic State fighters, in order to take the perpetrators to court in Iraq. The UN has been reluctant to recognise the violence against Christians and Yazidis as genocide, despite pressure from civil society groups and some of its own member states such as the Netherlands.
‘Instruments of the West’
Those who have returned to their communities and want to leave, face challenges such as the western visa application processes, according to Stanley.
The US, under the Trump administration, has taken fewer Iraqi refugees in than it did during the Obama administration. Instead, it sent an aid package of US$35 million to the region to support Iraqi Christians and Yazidis who had suffered under IS occupation. The UK also has been slow on the uptake.
Stanley acknowledged that it’s not always a simple matter of putting pressure on governments to treat Christians fairly. Christians often are considered to be instruments of Western governments, and as such are regarded as a threat to national identity or security. The challenge, then, is to help Christians without exposing them to undue risk, he said.
For the UK government, this could mean including the topic of religious freedom in future trade negotiations, said Dr Matthew Rees, Head of Advocacy for Open Doors UK and Ireland. It is one of the policy recommendations the Christian religious-freedom charity has made to the country’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the back of an independent review of how the government department supports persecuted Christians.
“Just like climate change, the topic of religious freedom is not a one-party or single-leader issue but something to grow consensus around”, Rees said.
Prosecutors demand 18-month term for Christian youth accused of mocking the burning of an Islamic flag.
Prosecutors in Indonesia have demanded an 18-month jail term and a $715 fine for a Christian student accused of insulting Islam.
Agung Kurnia Ritonga, 22, a student at the University of North Sumatra in Medan, is currently on trial for insulting Islam in an Instagram post by mocking the burning of an Islamic flag in October last year.
Three Muslim youths in Garut, West Java burned a tawhid flag presumed to belong to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned militant group on Oct. 21, 2018.
Ritonga’s Instagram post on Oct. 24, was said to have insulted the tawhid flag that has script describing the monotheistic God in Islam and God himself.
“What’s the matter if the tawhid flag is burnt? Your God apparently gets burnt also? So, don’t take many recitations that teach culture, that makes fools. Your God is just silent over there, playing guitar, getting drunk, and writing porn poetry, why are you so busy?” Ritonga wrote.
He was arrested the next day after hundreds of Muslims surrounded his house in protest.
During trial proceedings this week, prosecutors told the panel of judges that Ritonga’s actions could have damaged interreligious harmony.
Muhammad Irwansyah Putra, a local mosque official who made the initial blasphemy complaint, said he was satisfied with the trial’s outcome and agreed with the jail term demanded by prosecutors.
“I agree with the proposed sentence as it should appease anger and avert possible violence,” he told ucanews.com.
Hamdan Hasonangan Harahap, Ritonga’s lawyer, said the student had shown remorse and apologized to Muslims.
“What he wrote did not aim to insult Muslims, he only wanted to debate [with them],” he said.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy director of Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, regretted that such a case required a jail sentence.
“It was because of pressure from radical Muslim groups,” Naipospos said.
He referred to the case of a Buddhist woman, also from Medan, who was jailed for 18 months in August last year for complaining about the noise from a local mosque’s loudspeakers during the call to prayer.
The blasphemy law is discriminatory, he said.
VOP Note: As Christians, we must ask the Lord to give us discernment to choose our words wisely for the glory of His Kingdom.
(World Watch Monitor) Jakarta’s former governor, known as “Ahok”, who was sentenced last year to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam, is to be released from prison next month, four months ahead of schedule.
The ethnic Chinese Christian, whose real name is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was due to be released in May but has been granted early release, scheduled for 24 January, for good behaviour, according to Sri Puguh Budi Utami, Director General for Prison Affairs, as reported by AsiaNews.
Ahok had refused parole in July as he hoped for early release after serving almost two-thirds of his sentence.
Ahok, the first Christian and ethnic Chinese to govern Indonesia’s capital since the 1960s, was charged with blasphemy in December 2016 after accusing his political opponents of using Quranic verses to dissuade Muslims from voting for him in his bid for re-election as Jakarta governor.
In April last year, one day after he lost the election to his Muslim contender, Anies Rasiyd Baswedan, prosecutors downgraded the blasphemy charges against him and recommended he serve no prison time if found guilty. They suggested two years’ probation with a possible one-year jail term if he committed a crime during that period. The judge, however, decided a harsher punishment was called for, telling the court: “Mr. Purnama was found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment.”
His sentence received widespread condemnation globally as politicians, academics and rights groups expressed their concerns about the growing threat to religious pluralism in Indonesia.
During the trial, Ahok’s supporters clashed repeatedly with extremist Islamist groups and it was for this reason that the former governor initially decided not to appeal his sentence – “for the sake of our people and nation”.
Politics and fake news
However in February Ahok filed an appealafter a court found a communications professor from Jakarta, Buni Yani, guilty of hate speech for editing the viral video that formed the basis for the allegations against Ahok. But the Supreme Court rejected Ahok’s appeal.
Before Ahok’s trial, in November 2016, Catholic news agency UCAN reported that according to Syafi’i Ma’arif, the former chairman of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Islamic group in Indonesia, there was “no blasphemy” in Yani’s video, and the charges against the Christian governor had been fabricated for political purposes.
During his trial, Ahok told the court he had been the target of racist and religious attacks since he was elected to public office in 2005.
In March it was reported that Ahok may also have been a victim of a sophisticated anti-government campaign of “fake news” and malicious bots. An online jihadist network known as the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA) posted “inflammatory content and messages designed to amplify social and religious division, and push a hardline Islamist and anti-government line”, authorities said.
An Indonesian musician is currently facing a two-year prison sentence for allegedly committing hate speech against Ahok during his bid for re-election in 2017, as World Watch Monitor reported.
Earlier this year, Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission announced plans to publish guidelines to avoid sectarian clashes in the run-up to next year’s national elections as some hard-line Islamic leaders had called on Indonesians to vote only for Muslim candidates.
Christian and Muslim leaders in Burkina Faso met last week to discuss interreligious dialogue amidst growing concerns about the spread of violent Islamic extremism in the country, reports Fides.
The landlocked West African nation, which borders Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast, is majority-Muslim (around 60%), but also has significant numbers of Christians (over 20%, the vast majority of whom are Catholics) and followers of indigenous beliefs (15%), according to the latest census (2006).
On top of a rise in violent extremism, delegates of the Second General Assembly 2018 of the Episcopal Commission for Islamic-Christian Dialogue noted an increase in radicalisation and the use of religion to drive political agendas.
“We are called to live together,” Muslim leader Iman Boureima Drobo told delegates. “We must learn to do it. It is an obligation, otherwise it will be very difficult to be happy on this earth. It is here that Paradise and eternal life are prepared. If we are not in this state of spirit in this world, it will be very difficult to obtain what God has promised us after death.”
Last month the International Crisis Group warned of an “alarming escalation of jihadist violence”, as reports emerged about a group called ‘Islamic Security’, operating from Pouytenga, 150km east of the capital Ouagadougou. The Fédération des Associations Islamiques du Burkina described the group as “the non-armed service of the local Sunni movement”, whose members were guarding mosques and other religious sites during times of worship. The group is now believed to have been disbanded.
Burkina Faso has been the scene of several Islamist attacks, including one in January 2016 in which 29 people were killed, including a US missionary and six Christians on a humanitarian trip.
On the very same day, an Australian doctor and his wife were kidnapped in the town of Djibo, near the Mali border. Ken and Jocelyn Elliott, who are in their eighties, had worked in Burkina Faso since the 1970s. Jocelyn was released after a month, but her husband, who was declared a citizen of the West African nation by an official decree in November 2016, is still missing.
It is believed that he is being held outside of Burkina Faso. In July 2017, he appeared in a video produced by his kidnappers, along with several other Western kidnap hostages. On it, he said: “This video is to ask various governments, in particular the Australian government and Burkina government, to do what they can to help negotiate my release.” Addressing his family, he added: “I just want to say, again, I love you all and I appreciate all your prayers and all your cares. I look forward to one day being reunited.”
World Watch Monitor
Indonesian police believe they have uncovered a clandestine “fake news” operation designed to destabilise the government and corrupt the political process, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported today.
Authorities have made a series of arrests across Indonesia in recent weeks linked to an online jihadist network known as the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA).
Damar Juniarto, of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, said the MCA comprised groups or networks with links to opposition parties, the military, and an organisation of increasingly influential Islamists. Police have not revealed who is financing it.
The Guardian said one network it had identified “was created for the sole purpose of tweeting inflammatory content and messages designed to amplify social and religious division, and push a hardline Islamist and anti-government line”.
Digital strategist Shafiq Pontoh, from the data consultancy firm Provetic, told the Guardian: “The first victim in the polluted [digital] ecosystem was the governor election, Ahok,” adding of the controversial blasphemy conviction: “It was all because of fake news, bots, black campaigns, prejudice and racism.”
A bot is software that performs simple and repetitive tasks and is often used for malicious purposes such as posting defamatory content on social media platforms.
The Guardian reported that a cluster of bots in the Indonesia Twittersphere, used to pump out anti-Ahok material last year, stopped tweeting two days after the gubernatorial election.
Savic Ali, online director at Indonesia’s largest Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulama, suggested the Muslim Cyber Army was not about the true values of Islam but “about power”.
Ahok, a Christian politician of Chinese descent, was sentenced to two years in prison last May following a string of protests organised by conservative Muslim groups while he campaigned for re-election.
He was convicted on the basis of a video in which he argued against use of the Quran for political purposes – comments for which he was later adjudged to have committed blasphemy. Six months later a communications professor from Jakarta, Buni Yani, was found guilty of tampering with the video on which Ahok appeared and which turned public opinion against him.
Meanwhile a spokesman for Indonesia’s Supreme Court has said the review of Ahok’s case may be fast-tracked because of the case’s high profile.
The spokesman, Agung Abdullah, suggested the court may consider speeding up the process of the case review, “because the case receives widespread public attention”, the Jakarta Post reported last week.
North Jakarta District Court’s head of public relations, Jootje Sampaleng, confirmed that the documents from Ahok’s ten-minute appeal hearing on 26 February had been signed and sent to the Supreme Court.
(World Watch Monitor) The images were horrific. Father Samaan Shehata, a 45-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest, lay dead on the ground, stabbed and beaten by a young man wielding a meat cleaver.
Blood dripped down his face into his long, black beard. Dirt discoloured his flowing black robe. His cross pendant rested peacefully on his chest, eerily imitated in the cross-like stabbing etched into his forehead.
Many details remain unknown, but early indications point to extremism. Fr. Shehata was from Beni Suef, visiting a family in Cairo 150 kilometres north in a lower-class, urban suburb of Cairo.
It may well be he was targeted only for the clothes he was wearing – in Egypt, a clear indication of his religious profession.
He was left a public spectacle. So far, no claim of responsibility, no message of intention. There are possible hints circulating of mental instability on the part of the attacker.
Perhaps. Murder is rare in Egypt. Despite the increased terrorism suffered by Copts in recent years, this killing is unusual. There is a chance it was random. But few think so. Coptic social media immediately proclaimed Fr. Shehata a martyr, adding him to the growing scroll.
The image, however, may have lasting effect, reinforcing a decades-old message: the streets are not the place for priests.
Bishop Angaelos of the United Kingdom held the requisite forgiveness to the end of his statement, pouring out instead his frustration and anger.
“Why should a priest not be able to walk safely down a street?” he demanded. “Coptic Christians who have endured injustice, persecution, and loss of life for centuries without retaliation, repeatedly forgiving unconditionally, deserve to live with respect and dignity in their indigenous homeland.”
Samuel Tadros, a Coptic-American analyst, took to Twitter to highlight the social reality.
“This may be a horrific crime but it does not happen in a vacuum,” he wrote. “Coptic priests are insulted and harassed daily as they walk in Egy[ptian] streets.”
Respect. Dignity. Insult. Harassment. What is the way forward? The answer may lie partially in the clothes that sparked the assault.
Better law enforcement is necessary. Education must be reformed. These are the standard answers offered, and there is logic to them. But if they are not going to change anytime soon, what are Copts to do in the meantime?
Years ago I met my first Coptic priest in America, and I asked him about his beard and robe. They are tradition, he explained, but they are so much more.
To a degree, they are public spectacle.
Protestant pastors often blend into society. Catholic priests sometimes take off their vestments. But the Coptic Orthodox clergyman must look distinctive at all times. He is a sign of the church, a message to the people that God’s kingdom is near.
But in recent decades in Egypt, that kingdom has become less and less visible.
Let no one think that the nation is aflame. Muslims and Christians are neighbours and friends. Sectarianism is an ever-latent virus poisoning many, but for the most part life goes on amid patterns of discrimination and identity groupings.
But facing a growing Muslim – often Islamist – domination of the public square, especially before the revolution, Copts have increasingly withdrawn into their churches.
Who can blame them? Spitting is real. Priests travel for visitation in cars with tinted windows. Why not, if the money is there? Egypt drives everywhere these days, just look at the traffic.
But money is also a demarcating line. A priest can shop comfortably in the hypermarkets of upper-class Cairo. Will he buy vegetables off a donkey cart in poor Upper Egypt?
Perhaps this murder is a reminder that he must. Otherwise he cedes the public square completely.
“Why should a priest not be able to walk safely down a street? Coptic Christians who have endured injustice, persecution, and loss of life for centuries without retaliation, repeatedly forgiving unconditionally, deserve to live with respect and dignity in their indigenous homeland.”
Courage is necessary. Conviction. A certainty his service is not only for Christians, but ‘salt and light’ in the stability of his nation. Kingdom of God or not, Egypt, as every society, is only as strong as its minority members.
So let Coptic priests go and find friends. Invite the local imam for a stroll. Have a tea in the corner coffee shop. Circulate together. Purposefully.
Much in Egypt is centralised, and institutions can be nervous. But who can oppose it? National unity is state discourse. The Azhar would esteem. But why wait for official endorsement? Just go and ask the imam already visited on holidays. Can he refuse?
Let this not be naïve. National unity is often perceived as a grudging obligation for public perception. Many hearts – on both sides – are not pure.
And there is another risk. This must not be about ‘protection’. An interpretation of Islam holds that Muslims must guard over the Christians in their society. It can be a noble intention; it can also be at odds with citizenship. The priest must seek no favours, only partnership in society.
But let them be a public spectacle. This is your neighbourhood. Your country. Your fellow Egyptian. Your friend. Teach together.
It is also your gospel. Christians believe Jesus disarmed the evil spiritual powers of sin and disunity, making a public spectacle of them on the cross.
To preach this message, St. Paul and the apostles became public spectacles on display, as ‘fools’ for Christ condemned to die.
Much like Fr. Shehata.
But this is not a fool’s errand. There is even an institution dedicated to the effort. The Egyptian Family House has walked priests and imams in the streets before. Children crowded around and celebrated. Adults took selfies.
Let the cynicism come; all too often it is justified. But let the heart be pure and fight through it with love and solidarity. And courage. Let no-one pretend there will not be another extremist.
Fr. Shehata died dishonourably in one of the most populated areas of Cairo. Soon his idealised image will circulate with the crown of martyrdom. But which picture will hold in the mind of Copts?
The cross on his chest, or the cross on his forehead?
A priest belongs on the streets, like any Egyptian. May he choose wisely.
If the shoe was on the other foot…
A courageous, female Arab journalist who lives in Qatar has penned a bold article that asks Muslims in the Middle East how they would respond if Christian suicide bombers struck their public markets, collapsed their tall buildings or tried to force Muslims to convert to Christianity.
Liberal Saudi journalist Nadine Al-Budair writes in Kuwait’s Al-Rai newspaper that Arab countries have refused to address the problem of terrorism and have yet to create a climate that matches the liberal, humanitarian climate of the West. She asked Muslims to consider what their world would be like if Christians the world over had responded to Muslims the way terrorists have spread radical Islam.
“Imagine a Western youth coming here and carrying out a suicide mission in one of our public squares in the name of the Cross. Imagine that two skyscrapers had collapsed in some Arab capital, and that an extremist Christian group, donning millennium-old garb, had emerged to take responsibility for the event, while stressing its determination to revive Christian teachings or some Christian rulings, according to its understanding, to live like in the time [of Jesus] and his disciples, and to implement certain edicts of Christian scholars,” Al-Budair writes in a translation of the editorial provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
Al-Budair asks her readers to imagine Christian priests calling Muslims infidels over loudspeakers and chanting that God has demanded their deaths. She also writes they should also consider what would happen if Arab countries had provided Westerners with entry visas, benefits, modern healthcare only to have them turn on their hosts to kill them in the name of religion – likely a reference to the San Bernardino attacks carried out in December 2015.
“These images are far from the mind of the Arab or Muslim terrorist because he is certain, or used to be certain, that the West is humanitarian and that the Western citizen would refuse to respond [in this manner] to the barbaric crimes [of the Muslim terrorists],” Al-Budair writes. “Despite the terrorist acts of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, we [Muslims] have been on [Western] soil for years without any fear or worry. Millions of Muslim tourists, immigrants, students, and job seekers [travel to the West] with the doors open [to them], and the streets safe [for them].”
She writes, however, that tolerance for Muslims is fading in the West because Muslims refuse to confront the problem of Islamic extremism. As evidence of this, she points to the presidential campaign of New York billionaire Donald Trump, who in a “scary declaration,” she writes, “demanded to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.”
Al-Budair wrote that Muslims do not have the right to condemn statements like those made by Trump without addressing the failures of Arab educational systems which teach jihad and hatred of the West in madrassas (Islamic schools) around the world. Al-Budair claims Muslim nations should apologize to the rest of the world.
Much of what she said about education in the Middle East was voiced a year ago by Jordan’s Queen Rania in addressing the United Arab Emirages UAE Government Summit in Dubai.
Al-Budair isn’t confident, however, that anyone will heed her call for tolerance.
“After all these farces, some Arab analyst comes out touting a pathetic message, and reciting the same words in his friend’s ear that he has repeated millions of times: ‘Those [Muslims who commit terrorism] do not represent Islam, but only themselves.’
“This is all we [know how to do] – absolve [ourselves] of guilt,” she wrote.
Al-Budair, who describes herself, as a feminist, last year encouraged Muslim women to flee their “benighted countries” for the safety, security and opportunity of the West.
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