Christians Fear Growth of Persecution in Mali

BAMAKO, Mali (Compass) -- For some time, Muslim city authorities in Magnambougou planned for a beautiful new mosque in this new suburb of Bamako, the Malian capital. They acquired land in the middle of the urban dwellings and began to build a mosque that would dominate the area and accommodate more than 2,000 Muslims for prayers, much to the distress and dismay of local Christians.

The authorities had rejected the Christians' repeated requests for permission to build new churches.

"It is becoming harder as every week goes by to get the permission to buy land for a new church or build one," explained one of the church leaders in Bamako. "We have watched over the years as all the positions of authority, right down to local government positions, have been taken by Muslims. There is nothing we can do because the Muslims higher up refuse to consider appointing a Christian, no matter how good he or she is."

Even the few Christian politicians have either set aside their faith or have given up trying to speak out, he said. There is tremendous pressure upon Mali to declare itself a Muslim state -- pressure from Libya, Mauritania, Algeria, Guinea and Senegal -- Muslim states that surround Mali.

"We have a proud tradition of being secular, and we have a substantial Christian population, not to mention the many animists in Mali. There seems to be nothing we can do against the tide of Islam, however. It seems as if we are just sitting around waiting for it to come about," the church leader said.

Some Christians, however, are responding, at least through prayer. One group met regularly and walked around the new mosque, reclaiming the land for Christ. To the dismay of the builders and architects, one of the large minarets fell down. No one was able to explain why. The building of the mosque has been delayed for several weeks.

"We cannot say that we are openly being oppressed or persecuted yet," the church leader said. "There are some incidents, but these tend to be the result of radical family or community reactions. There is nothing organized and methodical. Yet it is there, quietly growing in the background."

Christians have also seen a subtle shift in the aid Mali is receiving, which has hindered the church's impact on society.

"Before, the missionaries brought with them expertise in education or medicine, and frequently were able to supply quantities of basic foodstuffs or medicines to help the local people," a pastor said. "Clinics and schools helped to overcome people's ignorance and primitive fear. Hygiene and health improved. Churches were built, and those running them continued to care for the people's welfare as well as their souls.

"Now the 'aid business,' if you can refer to it like that, has almost been wrested out of the hands of the churches. It comes to Mali in the form of loans by the World Bank, or packages wrapped in political arguments, diplomatic bargaining chips. The overt aid for poverty-stricken villagers now comes from Saudi Arabia and Libya and other Islamic countries. It is Islamic aid and it comes with a promise of more for those who convert to Islam."

In addition, many churches have reduced the number of evangelical events held or hold none at all.

"It is harsh to say this, but some of (the churches) are asleep, while others are too frightened to do anything. Ironically, we think that Mali has never been so open to the gospel as now. But how long this will last, only God knows," the pastor said.

Many Christians believe Mali is an ideal platform to launch evangelistic missions to other countries, but inside the country are some of the most spiritually impenetrable areas.

Djenne, for example, is reportedly so steeped in animism that churches have been unable to function there. The town was built around the burial place of Tapama, a 15-year-old girl sacrificed to obtain the blessing for prosperity and protection. She is the protecting fetish of the town, and until recently, the Christians were never able to make inroads in Djenne.

"We tried to send an evangelist to Djenne," said one church leader, who did not want to be named. "He was not allowed even to stay in the town over night. Somehow they found out he was a Christian. They sent him away with the message, 'We will never have a Christian in the town of Djenne.'"

The evangelist found a place to live in a small settlement about 25 kilometers away. The first man he converted was an inhabitant of Djenne. Then the Christian Evangelical Church was able to purchase land in the town near where this new Christian lived. Felix Dembele, a trained evangelist, was the missionary appointed to settle in the town. Some men representing the local chiefs came to see Dembele. They told him that he was going to die from a curse they had put on him.

Following this visit, Dembele was involved in a bad accident while riding his motorbike. He was forced to leave Djenne to get treatment at the hospital at San. He recovered from his injuries and returned to Djenne. The locals waited for him to die, but nothing happened.

The evangelist later contracted hepatitis. "This time, if you leave we will never see you again," the local chiefs told him. He was referred to the large hospital at S‚gou for tests and treatment. Dembele eventually returned to Djenne and called together all the chiefs, authorities, imams and dignitaries that would come.

"They came to see this miracle -- this man who had defied the strongest of their curses," the pastor explained. "It was the first time someone had overcome the effect of these curses."

He told the gathering that he intended to stay and to preach about Jesus. He had no intention to harm anyone or curse anyone for what they had tried to do.

"We visited Dembele in mid February to encourage him. He has started to make the bricks to build his house. The mayor of the city called him in to warn him that he should stop building and leave for his own safety. He is under great pressure but is firmly convinced that God is going to show His great power in the face of this opposition -- these 'prophets of Baal,'" the pastor said.

On Sunday in the capital, there is television time devoted to Christian church services. But despite the churches having a voice on national radio and television, few have an active program of evangelism.

One exception is the Christian Evangelical Church in Niamakoro, a suburb of Bamako. A team of medical people from different churches in the United States frequently comes to bring medicine and treat church members and others in the area. This allows the locals access to medical help they would normally be too poor to afford. Although Christians are the main recipients, it is also an opportunity to offer help to people of other faiths.

The senior pastor, Jean Pierre, is also involved in helping Muslim converts. He comes across many cases of people who have been rejected by their families for converting to Christianity.

"Maybe we need to set up a place that can cater to these new converts, until they can get on their feet and support themselves financially," Jean Pierre said. "But we would have to do such a thing as a joint venture between as many churches as possible. That would be a small miracle in itself to get the churches working together and in agreement over something here in Bamako."

Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct.