As the world focusses 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 Colonel Gaddafi – characterised by easy access to weapons of all sorts combined with 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 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.
FACEBOOK TEAMS UP WITH ISRAEL AGAINST SOCIAL MEDIA TERROR INCITEMENT
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have met with the international directors of Facebook to discuss rampant incitement on the social network. “Israel is at the forefront of combating terrorism on all fronts, including the internet front,” said Shaked. “In my view, Facebook and other social networks can do much more in the war against incitement.” Joel Kaplan, Vice President of Public Policy and Monika Bickert, head of the Global Policy department at Facebook, travelled to Israel to meet with the two Israeli ministers. Erdan and Shaked discussed the widespread use of the social network to motivate and encourage terrorist activity, stressing that the latest wave of terror attacks known as “lone-wolf” attacks was directly connected to online incitement.
The ministers asked the Facebook management team to remove incitement-filled material within 24 hours of its publication, similar to the website’s policy in European Union countries. According to a spokesperson with the Ministry of Public Security, the sides agreed to establish task forces to collaborate on combating the proliferation of incitement on social media. Facebook previously commented to Tazpit Press Service that the company “wants people to feel safe when using Facebook. There is no place for content encouraging violence, direct threats, terrorism or hate speech on Facebook.”
HOW AN ATHEIST CAMPAIGN IS AFFECTING DANISH STATE CHURCH MEMBERS
A record number of Danes have left the state church this year and a campaign by the Danish Atheist Society is getting the credit. The group set up a webpage to make it easier for Danes to quit the church. So far, 10,300 have cancelled their membership in the second quarter, the highest quarterly figure since 2007 when official statistics began being kept. Danish sources report that figure was twice as high as the first quarter and more than four times higher than the same period last year. The Atheist Society launched a national ad campaign that included bus banners asking, “Why believe in a god?” and “Why should faith cost something?” Danish church members have to pay a church tax, which is up to 1.5 percent of their income. Seventy-seven percent of Denmark’s 5.6 million people are church members.
Baptized Danes are automatically made members of the church, making them liable for the church tax. Although just 2.4 percent of members attend church regularly. The second largest religion in Denmark is “none.” Kristeligt Dagblad reports that the most common group to quit the church is men between the ages of 18 and 25. The chairman of the Danish Atheist Society, Anders Stjernholm, said he was “immensely happy” that their campaign has led to so many leaving the church. A similar campaign in neighbouring Norway caused the state church to lose 25-thousand members last month.
MEXICO’S CHRISTIANS SEEK ANTI-SAME-SEX MARRIAGE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
An evangelical organization, For Life and Family, recently gathered 300,000 in support of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex couples from getting married in the country. The signatures were presented to the Chamber of Deputies after a march. The initiative would also add bans against abortion and sex education in schools into the constitution. Marriage equality has been spreading steadily in Mexico, thanks to a long-term legal strategy by activists who have brought case after case to the federal courts to win injunctions for couples, leading to legal and state-level legislative victories, reports Religion Dispatches. From a report in El Norte: “Hugo Eric Flores, who is also leader of the PES, considered that God must become the focus of national policy.”
“Once a spiritual government for all of us, seeking the face of the Lord asking Him to have mercy on this nation is established, you know what will happen? It will just be lifted…” he said. Evangelical leaders added that mobilizing to San Lazaro was historic because never before has a religious organization succeeded in presenting a bill. This, they said they felt, was a miracle. Catholic bishops reportedly have been vocal opponents of the initiative, with the Archdiocese of Mexico putting out a statement that it is not among the organizers of the anti-marriage rallies planned by the National Front of the Family.
The United Kingdom’s pro-jihad preacher has been sentenced to prison for supporting ISIS. Anjem Choudary, one of the most well-known faces of radical Islam in Britain, was convicted in July. For years, his preaching caused outrage and made him a key voice for radicalizing young Muslims. Choudary is very clear about his desire to establish Sharia law in the West. “I am convinced, I am 100 percent certain that the Sharia will be implemented in America and in Britain one day,” he told CBN News. “The question is when and how it will come to fruition.”
Choudary is unapologetic about what a nation ruled by Sharia would mean. “If people are afraid of having their hands cut, don’t steal,” Choudary said. “If you don’t want to be stoned to death, don’t commit adultery. It seems to me that people want all of the vices and they want to get away with it as well. But it doesn’t work like that.” Choudary said. He was finally arrested after his name appeared on an oath declaring the legitimacy of the Islamic State. Commander Dean Haydon, a counter terrorism officer in the United States, said Choudary’s “speeches and oath of allegiance were a turning point for the police.”
WHAT WILL A NEW PRESIDENT IN UZBEKISTAN MEAN FOR CHRISTIANS
On Friday 2 September the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, passed away. When asked about the new leader, an Uzbek Christian said, “I don’t expect drastic changes. Christians in Uzbekistan will continue to experience harassment by the government.” Christians experienced enormous restrictions under Islam Karimov’s rule. Churches were harassed, Christian literature was confiscated and Islamic extremism grew. An Open Doors expert for the region says, “We pray for the new president and trust our Lord. Do we want religious freedom to come? Many Uzbek Christians would surely say ‘Yes!’ But if the situation will improve, we don’t know. What we do know is that God has always been gracious and He will continue to be gracious. We ask our supporters to pray that His will be done in Uzbekistan.”
* for God to appoint a leader who is not afraid of the church and sees the positive impact of Christianity
* that Christians who have suffered would be quick to forgive and show Christ’s love.
* for many new believers in Uzbekistan. Pray that many more will have the opportunity to hear the Good News under a new leader.