Zanzibar, Tanzania - Radical Islamists are suspected in the demolition of two church buildings on Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar on Sunday (Nov. 21), as members of the congregations have since received death threats from Muslims.
The church buildings belonging to the Tanzania Assemblies of God (TAG) and the Evangelical Assemblies of God Zanzibar (EAGZ) in Masingini village, five kilometers (nearly three miles) from the center of Zanzibar city, were torn down at about 8 p.m., said Bishop Fabian Obeid of EAGZ. Mwera police received reports on the attacks on Monday morning (Nov. 22).
The latest in a string of violent acts aimed at frightening away Christians in the Muslim-dominated region, the destruction on the island off the coast of East Africa has raised fears that Muslim extremists could go to any length to limit the spread of Christianity, church leaders said.
“One Muslim was heard saying, ‘We have cleansed our area by destroying the two churches, and now we are on our mission to kill individual members of these two churches – we shall not allow the church to be built again,’” said one church member who requested anonymity.
The TAGT brick building was under construction and nearing completion; members of the congregation had gone to worship in their new building for the first time on Sunday. The EAGT building where more than 30 members met was a mud structure.
EAGT Pastor Michael Maganga and TAG Pastor Dickson Kaganga said they were fearful about the future of the church in Masingini. Pastors in Zanzibar have scheduled a meeting on Saturday (Nov. 27) to discuss how to cope with the destruction of the two buildings, said the chairman of the Pastors Fellowship in Zanzibar, Bishop Leonard Masasa of EAGT church.
Muslim extremists in Zanzibar, in concert with local government officials, have long limited the ability of Christians to obtain land for erecting worship buildings. In some cases they have destroyed existing buildings and put up mosques in their place.
Frustrated at obtaining government help to apprehend criminals, church leaders said they have little hope that the perpetrators of Monday’s attacks will ever be caught. In most cases the government sides with the attackers, delaying investigation out of fear of upsetting the majority Muslim population that opposes the spread of Christianity.
In 2009, officials in Mwanyanya-Mtoni colluded with area Muslims to erect a mosque in place of a planned church building of the EAGZ, Pastor Paulo Kamole Masegi said.
Pastor Masegi had purchased land in April 2007 for a church building in Mwanyanya-Mtoni, and by November of that year he had built a house that served as a temporary worship center, he said. Soon area Muslim residents objected.
In August 2009, local Muslims began to build a mosque just three feet away from the church plot. In November 2009, Pastor Masegi began building a permanent church structure. Angry Muslims invaded the compound and destroyed the structure’s foundation, the pastor said.
Church leaders reported the destruction to police, who took no action – and also refused to release the crime report, so that the case could not go to court, Pastor Masegi said.
Meantime, construction of the mosque was completed in December 2009. The planned church building’s fate appeared to have been sealed earlier this year when Western District Commissioner Ali Mohammed Ali notified Pastor Masegi that he had no right to hold worship in a house.
Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.
Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.