Renewed fighting and re-occupation of a number of towns in northern Mali by armed Tuareg groups has renewed anxieties among the region’s Christian minority.
On May 21, a coalition of Tuareg rebels overran Malian army forces after an intense fight for control of Kidal, one of the largest cities in northern Mali. The fighting followed a May 17 visit by Mali Prime Minister Moussa Mara to Kidal, considered a stronghold for the independence-minded ethnic Tuareg. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says about 4,000 people have been displaced by the violence.
There are reports that Tuareg fighters also have taken control of the towns of Meneka, Aguelhok, Anefis and Tessalit, across the country’s north.
On May 23, rebels agreed to a cease-fire brokered by Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, president of neighboring Mauritania and chairman of the African Union.
The fighting is a powerful reminder of the Tuareg separatist violence that swept down from the north in 2012 and precipitated a coup of the national government. >For nearly a year, armed Islamist groups ruled the north, banning other religions, and looting churches and other houses of worship. Thousands of people, including many Christians, fled to the southern Mali or to neighboring countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso.
For Pastor Mohamed Ag Moussa Yattara, it’s as if history is repeating itself. He remembers the day in April 2012 when Timbuktu, a key northern regional capital, fell into the hands of rebels.
As the threat intensified, Yattara organized the escape of 100 members of his church. He later managed to reach Bamako, the national capital, after a 700-kilometre journey by various means of transport, including foot. By January 2013,>French troops regained control of the region.
Yattara said he is confident he won’t have to relive the “difficult” life of refugees, which he said were “dishonored” and “often treated like beggars.”
”I do not think there will be a new occupation as patrols organized by UN forces are reassuring, although we all fear infiltration of Islamists,” he told World Watch Monitor.
Such confidence is in shorter supply among the small, widely scattered Christian communities across Mali’s northern desert regions. In Gao, an eastern regional capital, banks and other businesses, closed for days, have reopened cautiously, according to local sources.
In the far northeastern town of Aguelhok, home to about 30 Christians, most of them military, the situation is worrying, Pastor Samuel Guindo told Watch Monitor.
”This community is led by an army officer,” he said. “They meet every Sunday in the camp. Last month we sent them 24 copies of Bibles in French and some hymns. But we have learned that the barracks are surrounded by Tuareg rebels, and it is feared that they may face a food shortage soon.
Situated near the Algerian border, Aguelhok has a strong connection to the rebellion, the place where about 100 unarmed Malian soldiers were killed in January 2012 by Tuareg rebels and militants suspected to be connected to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
About 10 Christian believers, most of them military personnel, live in Tessalit, another far northeastern town now reported to be under Tuareg control. In Bourem town there are a dozen believers, mostly civil servants.
In 2013, >Mali was ranked No. 7 on World Watch List, a ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. The list is published annually by Open Doors International, a charity supporting Christians worldwide who live under pressure because of their faith.