Growing Persecution of Christians in Africa

Growing Persecution of Christians in Africa Refugees fleeing violence in Mozambique, 2020. Photo: Aid to the Church in Need

Catholicism is growing extremely rapidly in Africa. Despite this fact the Church faces new challenges on the continent. It has become clear that Africa will be the largest battleground in Christian persecution over the next decade. In many ways Africa is already the largest battleground. It is estimated that more Christians are killed for their faith in Nigeria than in another country in the world. What is even more disturbing is that the persecution is spreading. Unfortunately, like in the Middle East, it is Islamists that are at the forefront of persecuted Christians in Africa. This persecution had previously been limited to countries like Niger, where Muslims are a clear majority, and countries like Nigeria, where the population is split pretty much evenly between Muslims and Christians. The targeting of Christians by Islamists is now spreading to countries where Christians make up a clear majority.

One of these countries is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). DRC has gone through a lot of suffering for well over a century. Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, DRC has been struck with several civil wars focused on the country’s rich natural resources. In fact, the bloodiest conflict of the 21st century took place in DRC. This was the Second Congo War, with somewhere between 3-5 million people dying. The war ended in 2003. Smaller scale conflicts have continued in DRC right to the present day. One of the reasons why conflict has been so intractable in DRC is the combination of weak governmental structures and the presence of conflict in neighbouring countries. Frequently defeated combatants in the civil wars in one of DRC’s many neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda, take refuge in DRC. These armed groups end up fighting amongst themselves and against Congolese groups and government.

Given the chaotic state of the country, it is very difficult to attain accurate demographic information on DRC. Despite this, it is clear the vast majority of the people are Christians, with most of the population being Catholics. DRC is not one of the countries that comes to mind when thinking of Christian persecution, but deadly Christian persecution is taking place in DRC. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is an Islamist group from Uganda. The ADF has been carrying out an insurgency in Uganda to establish an Islamic state there. Like DRC, most of Uganda’s population are not Muslim but Christians. For this reason, the ADF have not enjoyed much support and have not exactly been very successful in establishing an Islamic state in Uganda. Many ADF fighters have been forced into neighbouring DRC. Here they have become involved in fighting with other groups and have carried out massacres against the local Christian population in DRC. The most infamous of these was the Beni massacre in 2016, killing at least 64 people.

The spread of Islamist insurgencies into Christian majority countries in Africa is not limited to DRC and Uganda. In recent months Mozambique has seen a drastic escalation of Islamist violence in the north of the country. Mozambique is majority Christian, with a Muslim minority present in the north of the country. Since 2017, Mozambique’s most northernly province of Cabo Delgado has been witness to an insurgency by the Islamic State in Central Africa (ISCA). This insurgency had been for the most part ignored by international media. From the start of the insurgency in 2017 until November 2020 a total of 2,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks and atrocities. In November 2020, ISCA beheaded 50 people on a football pitch in the village of Muatide in Cabo Delgado. This brutal attack hammered home to many the seriousness of the insurgency in northern Mozambique. This has led to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict area for their lives. Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of the Diocese of Pembo explains the dept of the crisis: “Over half a million displaced people need everything! They need food, clothes, medicine, pots, they need attention, a place to live, everything. It is a war that has brought much suffering to all of us.” The local Church has committed itself to caring for these refugees by providing food, shelter, and medicine. In order to help the mission of the local Church, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has pledged €100,000 in aid to Mozambique to provide humanitarian relief to the refugees.

The Church’s efforts to help the refugees in Mozambique has become even more difficult, as the Church has become a target for Islamists. For example, the most important mission site of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Diocese of Pemba was recently attacked. Thankfully because of the imminent danger the site was abandoned very shortly before the attack, so no one was killed. The entire mission was destroyed.  According to Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of the Diocese of Pemba, the attack “totally destroyed, the church, the priests’ house, the sisters’ house, the community radio, the outpatient clinic”. This sort of attack, even at the best of times, would be a major blow to the local Church, but given the refugee crisis in Mozambique it is even more devastating.

The destroyed church in Zinder, Niger. Photo: Aid to the Church in Need

Attacks against church buildings are becoming more common throughout Africa. ACN is at the forefront in the rebuilding of these church buildings, so the local Church can continue to minister the sacraments and providing charitable relief to the local population. There are many examples of these projects, such as the city of Zinder in Niger. Many people across the world were shocked and horrified by the deadly attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. What is less known is that there were widespread attacks on Christians and churches through the world at the same time in reaction to the satirical cartoons. The violence was particularly bad in the West African country of Niger. Niger is a majority Muslim country, with Christians making up less than 1% of the population. In the capital Niamey, 12 of the 14 churches were looted and burned down in January 2015. Two convents of religious sisters were also attacked. In the second city of Zinder, the local Catholic parish was also attacked on 16th January 2015. The church had previously been attacked, desecrated, and set on fire in 2012. The 2015 attack was even more destructive. All the buildings belonging to the local parish were looted and destroyed. These buildings included the presbytery, the school, the convent for religious sisters, and of course the parish church itself. By God’s providence no one was killed during the attack. In the wake of the attack, 200 people, including the priest and religious sisters, were forced to flee to the capital Niamey. Catholics in Niger are a very small minority. The local parish’s ability to pay for the reconstruction of the parish church and other buildings is very limited. For this reason, ACN has committed to providing funds to help build a new church. The old church is going to be kept as a memorial to what happened. As we fast approach Lent, ACN invites you all to join in witness to the plight of persecuted Christians around the world and to keep them in your prayers.

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This feature is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need Ireland