The following is from a recent interview with a Christian reporting on the situation in Mali for the past year and how the situation in the north has affected Christians.
There has been a lot happening in Mali for the past year. What are the top three things we need to know about the current situation?
First, it is important to understand the history of the current situation. The crisis started in January of 2012 when Malian Tuaregs, who fought alongside Colonel Kaddafi in Libya, fled back home with heavy weapons. Known as the MNLA (which is the French acronym for the Azawad National Liberation Movement), the rebels soon ousted the Malian army and took over almost all of northern Mali, including the three largest cities (Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu). In April they declared the north an independent state, named Azawad, which was never recognized by the International community.
However, Islamist armed groups like Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam. More in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fought the MNLA. By June 2012, the Tuareg’s troops were driven out from the main cities in North Mali. Since then Islamist groups proclaimed Sharia (the Islamic Law) and imposed strict rules in the regions under their control. Alcohol, cigarettes and western music were banned. Women were forced to wear veil. Several young men accused of stealing goods were amputated. The practice of other religions was banned.
Hundreds of thousands of Malians have been forced to flee from their homes and communities due to the violence. Since January of 2013, French troops, along with troops from African countries entered Northern Mali and liberated all the main cities in the North. However, the situation is still fragile and there is much that has yet to be done.
Secondly, it is important to know that this crisis has created a general culture of mistrust and violence in many parts of Mali. Human-rights groups have accused the Malian army of attacking civilians, particularly light-skinned Arab and Tuareg ethnic groups associated with the rebels.
Finally, it is important to know that Christians have been especially targeted. While many Malians have experienced violence, Christians have been attacked because of their faith. They are viewed as a direct opposition to the Islamic insurgent’s agenda for the country of Mali. Churches and other Christian buildings in Timbuktu and Gao were desecrated and looted, with the aim of eradicating all traces of Christianity in the region.
So what exactly has been the effect on Christians in Mali? How are they persecuted?
Many of the Islamic insurgents have specifically targeted the church because they are seen as a direct threat to their cause. The insurgents have destroyed churches, Christian property and have attacked missionaries who had been living peacefully in the country for years. Because of this violence, Christians had to flee to Bamako the capital in the south and to neighboring countries like Niger and Burkina Faso. Even though international troops have liberated many of the cities which were once under the insurgent’s rule, the church still faces an uphill battle. One pastor told me “We are facing two major challenges; reconstruction and reconciliation.” Essentially when these Christians who were forced to flee, return home, they will have nothing; their homes, businesses and churches have all been destroyed. They have no money or funds to rebuild; they have to start from scratch. Reconciliation will also be another trial which they will face. Since many Malians were either ostracized or attacked because they were associated with the rebels. There is a great deal of healing and reconciliation needs to take place between countrymen.
Often times when a country is in turmoil, we only hear about the warfare or negative aspects of the country. Can you tell us a little bit about what the country was like before this crisis and what the Malian culture is like?
Mali was truly a peaceful place before the crisis. More than 90% of the population was Muslim, but they were more liberal or secular Muslims, not Islamic extremists. Christians and Muslims were neighbors and lived peacefully with one another. So it was especially troubling when Malians began to attack their fellow countrymen. This violence was something so different from the heart of the Malian culture. Much of the Malian culture is based around music and oral tradition. Stories are told to not only pass along historical tradition to the next generation, but to teach life lessons as well. Music is used in oral tradition, as a way to tell both stories and historical events. The city of Timbuktu, for example, was a culture hub for many years. Historically, it was one of the greatest trading posts and also had made a name for itself in the world of academia and education. Since 1988, Timbuktu was added to Unesco world heritage list for its distinctive mud mosques and mausoleums. But most of them were destroyed by Islamists.
What is the best way that we can pray for Christians in Mali?
I think the Pastor I spoke to said it best- to pray for the reconstruction and reconciliation as the Church in Mali strives to rebuild. Not only do they need to mend their buildings and homes, but they need to help their fellow countrymen rebuild their relationships with one another. There a lot of work for the church to do.
*not actual photo