Separatist Islamist rebels released a Swiss Christian woman kidnapped by a private militia on April 15 amid political turmoil in Timbuktu, Mali, according to a Swiss foreign ministry statement. Armed members of the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine handed Beatrice Stockly to Swiss diplomats on Tuesday, April 24, Reuters reported.
Al-Qaeda’s North African branch, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has gained a reputation in recent years for kidnapping and holding Westerners for millions of dollars in ransom payments. Consequently, before rebels captured Timbuktu on April 1, most Westerners had reportedly left due to fears of being kidnapped, according to the Compass Direct News.
Stockly, a Christian social worker in her 40’s had refused to leave Timbuktu, 439 miles northeast of the Mali capital, when it fell to Tuareg rebels and Islamist extremists. The Tuareg are a nomadic Berber people and are the main indigenous inhabitants of interior Sahara in northern Africa.
Ansar Dine militants took custody of Stockly after a shootout with an unidentified private militia that had seized her and wanted to sell her to AQIM. Amazingly, Ansar Dine, which has imposed sharia (Islamic law) in areas under its control in the north, then handed Stockly to the Swiss government without demanding a ransom, according to Agence France-Presse. Stockly was in good health “considering the circumstances,” according to a Swiss foreign ministry statement and is reportedly safe in Burkina Faso.
The situation, however, continues to be unstable for northern Malian Christians. Taking advantage of the confusion following a military coup on March 22, Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels captured the country’s vast desert north, calling it the Republic of Azawad. Devastation from the conflict has driven nearly 260,000 Malians living in the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu to seek safety in the south and surrounding countries, according to sources.
Among those who fled the north are hundreds of Christians, most of whom have found shelter in the capital, Bamako, in southern Mali. Local sources estimate about 300 Christians have fled to Bamako. Local churches are working together to care for them; many had to flee their homes and properties with only the clothes on their backs.
“There have been difficulties for Christians in the north,” said a Malian source. “All of them have left that region for the south. By the grace of God, there were no deaths. Everyone is safe. But it is difficult for those who left their homes. They have many needs. We don’t know if the situation will continue, but we are hoping for the re-establishment of peace.” The source requested anonymity, pointing out that various extremist Islamic groups are active in the area and surrounding countries. He said that revealing his name would lead to harassment of churches with which he is affiliated, especially at a time when the government’s power is substantially weakened.
On Wednesday, April 25, after the military junta agreed to stand down, appointed leaders formed a transitional government that includes three army representatives, according to Al Jazeera. One of the new government’s greatest challenges will be resolving the crisis in the north.
“We don’t want violence,” said the source. “We want a spirit of well-being between all the people groups of Mali… [pray] that a government will be put in place and take things in their hands in good governance.”
Heavenly Father, thank you for the safe release of Beatrice Stockly in Mali. We thank You for her courage to remain with the people with whom she was working with in Mali. We pray for Your continued protection over her and for the those, including Christians, who have fled from the northern part of the country during the uprising. As the country establishes a new government, we pray with Malian Christians “that a government will be put in place and take things in their hands in good governance,” that they might live together in “a spirit of well-being between all the people groups.” And in a culture of justice, we pray that Your Word might move across the whole land and redeem a people there to love and worship You. In the name of Jesus who even now is redeeming His church in Mali, Amen.