Leading the Underground Church in Zanzibar
24 years preaching Christ in the 99% Muslim nation
In 1998, Pastor Mathews left his home in Kilimanjaro for the Island of Zanzibar, to fulfill his calling to be a street preacher. For the last 24 years he has remained dedicated to his ministry, evangelizing to the citizens of the Muslim-majority, semi-autonomous archipelago. Looking back, he tells a story of hope and resilience.
“I am originally from the region of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but I have lived in Zanzibar for twenty-four years. I came here as a young man passionate about preaching the gospel of Christ to the people of this historical Island. I am now a husband and a father, a pastor in charge of two congregations, leading three underground small groups of Muslim background believers, and also a conference speaker on Muslim evangelism and discipleship.”
Mathews’ journey has taken self-sacrifice and caution, as any open attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity attracts persecution on the Island.
“Street preaching was hard because of the hostility from the indigenous Muslim people in Zanzibar. The Islam religion is nearly universal here compared to mainland Tanzania where only a third of the people are Muslims. Sometimes I would be politely stopped from preaching in the open markets while other times I was forcefully stopped and chased away. In 2008, the Lord called me into pastoral work and I planted a church called Christian Family Church. A year later, we were evicted from our place and a Muslim man built a shop in the same place.”
Having been kicked out of where the church met for fellowship, Pastor Mathews led his congregants to the beach, where they would meet every Sunday morning. This attracted more and more converts and the church began to grow, which once again brought persecution.
“After nine months fellowshipping at the shore of the Indian Ocean, the security officers guarding Zanzibar’s coast ordered us to leave the beach. They also ridiculed us for pretending to be Christians, yet we went to the beach for leisure. We spent the next four months renting a small room elsewhere, but the financial burden was huge because we also lost many of our church members due to the continued harassment. In June 2010, we resolved to submit our church under a well-established church entity that also helped us buy a new piece of land where we constructed our Church.”
At the moment, Mathews boasts of another church plant in Zanzibar and aspires to plant at least one church every year.
“Our vision has been to reach more people with the gospel and plant one or two churches in areas where the need arises. Although I still do street preaching, I know that the local church is the organ that God has designed for the discipleship of the nations to take place. We have been able to plant one more church and assigned it to one of our local evangelists. We have a membership of over 200 people in both churches.”
In addition, Mathews is leading a total of 19 new converts from Islam where he meets them in three different secret locations.
“My pastoral calling needed more training in order to effectively reach the Muslims. I was trained for two years and went on to use that knowledge. I have materials and a curriculum that I take Muslims through. I know how to create an environment for evangelism without raising eyebrows. At the moment we have 19 new converts and out of them, six have reached the discipleship level of being baptized. The others shall be baptized soon.”
He concluded, “Four out of the six we baptized are confident enough to come to church but we have asked them to wait for a little time to avoid creating a conflict that would result in their death or the destruction of our church. Recently, two of them turned up during our church service unexpectedly and I was surprised to see them. But in my heart, I was praising Jesus for saving them and sending them to be His witnesses.”
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