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By Linda Burkle, PhD

Not long ago I heard a Heidi Baker speak at a worship event. She was visiting the United States but lives in Mozambique, where she runs a large ministry, Iris Global. In the past, she would host visiting teams from the U.S. and other nations, one of which was attended by a friend of mine several years ago. However, such trips are no longer safe and have been discontinued due to violence. Baker shared that many of the pastors and congregants she worked with had been killed or forced to flee their homes. Some had been crucified, others burned or beheaded. Numerous churches and villages have been burned, particularly in the northern region as violent insurgents attack, specifically targeting Christians. [1] The Iris Global website states: “Our most urgent focus right now is the crisis in northern Mozambique. Over the last four years, more than 700,000 people have fled violent insurgents with many seeking safety in Pemba and surrounding villages. The situation has deteriorated dramatically and experts have recommended communities and organizations like Iris serving in the region prepare for a protracted season of terror and instability.” [2]

Beginning in 2017, armed militants, bearing the Islamic State flag, have wrenched havoc primarily in the northern Mozambique province of Cab Delgado. International Christian Concern has reported that although the conflict “started as a local struggle between a local gang and the wealthy businessmen and government who were taking the region’s natural resources, it has become an international crisis.”[3] As a result, over 3,000 have been murdered and almost a million displaced, creating what the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) has called an acute hunger crisis. [4] Prominent local Muslim leaders have condemned these attacks and, together with Christians, have formed a coalition to address the conflict and support those adversely affected. Traditionally, Christians and Muslims have relatively peacefully co-existed in the secular country, which constitutionally prohibits religious discrimination. [5]

The rise of the Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M) was in part due to the radicalization of young men who had studied Islam abroad where they received more fundamentalist religious training. Upon return to Mozambique, they recruited other disenfranchised young men to join their ranks. In June 2019, IS-M pledged allegiance to ISIS, affiliated with its Islamic State-Central African Province. Since that time, IS-M has conducted numerous deadly attacks primarily aimed at Christians. [6] In addition to mass killings and burning villages, IS-M is destroying farms and the food supply, as well as disrupting natural gas projects. The international community, namely the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Rwanda, and the European Union, deployed troops and provided training to assist the Mozambican government in responding to the growing insurgency.[7] These efforts are compounded by the distrust of central government by regional leaders and the general population.

On August 6, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the designation of IS-M leaders Bonomade Machude Omar and Ibn Omar as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” under Executive Order 13224. Such a designation freezes all assets and blocks financial transactions with these individuals. [8] Mozambican government officials have downplayed the role of IS-M in the violence, instead blaming “external terrorists” such as al-Shabbab. (The Islamic State-affiliated al-Shabbab is thought to have imbedded intelligence cells within the Mozambican military.) As the IS-M organization has grown in strength and level of brutality, as it has broadened its international ties. The insurgents finance themselves by illicit activities, including extortion and kidnapping. There is potential for the conflict to expand into neighboring provinces, also rich in natural resources and ripe for militant exploitation, and even across borders.” [9]

For the first time, Mozambique has been included on the World Watch List, published by Open Doors, as 45th among the top 50 worst countries for persecution of Christians. The year 2020 proved to be one of the most violent in recent history for the country due to the increasing Islamic terrorist attacks. “The country’s army withdrew from important strategic locations, so a persecution phenomenon that was limited to a smaller part of the country expanded in the last year. Finally, the presence of drug cartels in some areas makes the lives of Christians difficult—especially for church youth workers.” [10]

During an interview with CBN News, Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa from the Mozambique Pemba Diocese commented on the underreporting of this increased violence. “The world still has no idea what is happening, because of indifference, and because it seems that we have already become accustomed to wars,” said Bishop Lisboa. “There is war in Iraq, there is war in Syria and there is also now a war in Mozambique.” [11]

In his article entitled “Five Keys to Tackling the Crisis in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado”, USIP Fellow Thomas P. Sheehy summarizes the present conflict and proposes five action points:

  1. The immediate priority should be stemming military advances by the militants while also addressing the dire humanitarian situation.
  2. Despite concerns about the Mozambican government, the international community should recognize that there is no equivalence between it and the militants.
  3. The international community should press the government to address the legitimate economic and political grievances in Cabo Delgado.
  4. The government should better communicate with the people of Cabo Delgado.
  5. The Cabo Delgado crisis is an opportunity to address broader challenges in Mozambique and improve local governance. [12]

Whether these proposed actions will be implemented with positive results achieved remains to be seen. In the meantime, we continue to support and pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Mozambique, many of whom have lost everything. One pastor whose family had been killed proclaimed: “They can burn our houses, they can burn our food—but they cannot burn Jesus out of me.” [13]

Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.