Mali Christians Hopeful Despite Extremist Threat

A special Report by ICC

02/25/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – French military intervention in the conflict over Mali has given Christians and moderate Muslims a brief respite from the persistent Islamist threat of a reign of terror under Sharia law, though the conflict is still far from over.

This month, Christians from a church in Diabaly gathered for worship amongst bullets on the ground and graffiti on their church wall that reads, “Allah is the only one.” A few days before that, the church was doubling as a military base after Islamist rebels had been ousted by Malian and French military forces, following a period of violent occupation.

During the occupation, Pastor Daniel Konaté and his family fled to a village about 12 miles away. A small four-bedroom house on the outskirts of Diabaly became a place of refuge for 27 displaced Christians, terrified of being singled out for persecution by the occupying Islamists.

After the occupation was overthrown, Christians returned to their homes. But Konaté believes that the Islamist groups had been tipped off about the church by local support. As a result, neighbors who once lived together in harmony are now suspicious of each other.

In early 2012, as part of an ongoing effort to overthrow the government and establish a strict Islamic theocracy, extremist groups surged through Northern Mali, occupied town after town, destroyed religious shrines, tore down church buildings and imposed extreme Sharia law – engaging in public floggings, executions and amputations, with Christians and moderate Muslims falling prey to their vision for the future of the nation.

Though interim President Dioncounda Traoré was able to negotiate a French military intervention, the rebel occupation in the North had already resulted in extensive looting, abductions, pillage, recruitment of child soldiers, and rape of women and young girls.

According to The United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 284,000 people have fled their homes since January 2012. Out of them, about 107,000 were internally displaced, while the rest fled to neighboring countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Mauritania.

Mopti, in Central Mali, was one of the places of refuge for people from the North, until it too was occupied. Many of the minority Christians, who constitute five percent of the country’s 15.8 million people, either fled Mopti or were living there in fear during the occupation.

Moderate Muslims and Christians have suffered atrocities together, while rebel groups and Islamist radicals, primarily Ansari Dine, fight each other over their different visions for the country. A local imam, from the town of Abdoulaye Maiga, told Internet Press Service News that no one had been safe from the extremists, regardless of their religious affiliations. “We are all victims of those terrorists. We are all Malians and we all fled together. When my family came here, they brought with them a Christian family, and we loaned them some of our (traditional) clothes so the terrorists would let them travel without problems,” he said.

In early 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by its French name of Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) joined forces with various Islamist groups, particularly Ansari Dine, to overthrow the Malian government. But after weakening state control and occupying most of northern Mali, their deep ideological differences forced an inevitable divorce.

The MNLA wants a secular and independent state of “Azawad,” out of the North. But Ansari Dine, led by Ag Aghaly, stands against any bid for secessionism in favor of a nationwide imposition of Sharia law in a thoroughly Islamic state. Out of the two, during the conflict, it became clear that the Islamist group had the greater influence.

According to Jeremy Keenan, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, “What seems to happen is that when they move into a town, the MNLA take out the military base—not that there’s much resistance—and Iyad [Ag Aghaly] goes into town and puts up his flag and starts bossing everyone around about Sharia law.”

The ideological differences between Ansari Dine and the MNLA came to fever pitch at the Battle of Gao, in which the MNLA lost control of Mali’s cities in the North to Ansar Dine and the Islamist group, Movement for Oneness and Jihad. Since then, Christians were targeted in a determined attempt to nationalize Sharia law, until France initiated a military intervention on Jan. 11, 2013.

While some are afraid that French intervention might lead to more domestic terrorism, as radicals unite to fight off a “secular foreign invasion” that threatens “real Islam,” Christians are hopeful for the moment. “Christians were targeted. But all of Diabaly has been a victim. The Islamists did not have the time to impose Sharia, but if they did, everyone would have suffered. They did not succeed. And now we can all live in harmony like we were before. As one people,” says Pastor Konaté of the Islamist occupation in his town.

Despite the temporary suppression of Islamist radicals, Christians in northern Mali remain vulnerable to persecution and harassment at domestic levels in a nation without any enforced rule of law. Even though international intervention came at an opportune time, and has given Mali’s Christians some relief, the radical Islamist threat needs to be completely neutered before Mali is left to rebuild itself from the ashes, and so Christians can worship in churches without bullets lying before their feet.

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