Concern is growing for the Christian populations of Kenya and Tanzania, as jihadists are widening their sphere of influence across East Africa, a leading charity for persecuted Christians has warned. Release International has identified Iraq as the worst place to be a Christian, but advised that Islamist groups wherever they are currently present the most pressing threat to Christians, even more so than repressive Communist regimes.
“Islamist groups are gaining ground in Africa,” Paul Robinson, Chief Executive of Release International has warned. “There is evidence to suggest they will become a growing force for instability in East Africa in 2015. The greatest risk to freedom of faith in the New Year comes from Islamic groups determined to establish their brutal version of Sharia law – whatever the cost to human life.
“One of the worst places to be a Christian in 2014 was Iraq. Faced with the stark choice of conversion or beheading, most left everything and fled. Intolerant extremism poses the greatest threat to Christians in 2015.”
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, more than one million Christians have been driven from Iraq, but the coming of ISIS heralded the worst persecution, destroying ancient Christian communities and driving hundreds of thousands into the northern Kurdistan region. ISIS are now at the gates of Baghdad, where a small population of Christians remain.
“Kurdistan is probably the only region of the Middle East where the Christian population is growing,” said Robinson, adding “Please pray for its protection.”
However, Release warned that Christians in Africa are now experiencing a new and brutal wave of violence, as Islamists who have gained ground in Somalia extend their reach and threaten to destabilise surrounding nations.
Boko Haram militants destroyed 185 churches in just two states in the northeast of Nigeria in 2014, according to the International Business Times. And the BBC has estimated that Boko Haram killed almost 800 people in November alone. They are expected to step up their violent actions in the run up to the Presidential elections, due to take place in February 2015.
Meanwhile in Kenya, gunmen have killed scores in attacks on predominantly Christian towns in Kenya and on a church near Mombasa. In early December members of Al-Shabaab shot dead 36 non-Muslims in an assault on a labourers’ camp in north-east Kenya.
A month earlier, Al-Shabaab gunmen from Somalia stopped a bus in northern Kenya, separated out the non-Muslims and then shot dead 28 of them. 19 of those were Christians. One survivor said that he had been spared because he was able to recite some verses from the Koran – even though he is in fact a Christian.
And in Tanzania, a Christian man was killed and another was seriously injured when suspected Islamist extremists attacked them with machetes at a church in Bukoba, north-west Tanzania, in October. This despite the fact that Christianity is the majority religion in Kenya, and Christians make up fully one third of the Tanzanian population.
“Where these extremists take control, religious minorities face extreme brutality,” said Robinson. “This exodus and displacement of Christians from the Middle East and Africa will continue into 2015, wherever militants with their doctrines of intolerance and religious cleansing gain ground.”
A recent survey by the BBC World Service and King’s College London found jihadists had killed more than 5,000 people in November alone. The death toll was highest in Iraq, Syria and northern Nigeria, where militants have declared Islamic caliphates, as well as Afghanistan.
Release warns that persecution can take place at the hands of governments who have imposed Sharia law, as well as Islamic militant groups. The Sudanese government is expected to continue with its policy to drive out Christians into 2015, bulldozing churches and deporting foreign Christians.
And in India, Christians face persecution from a new form of Hindu nationalism which is emerging. Recent elections saw a landslide victory for the Hindu nationalists party BJV. Their rise has been accompanied by a number of attacks on churches and church leaders.
Release reports that often such attacks are a reaction against the growing number of Dalits who are converting to Christianity. The Dalits, an underclass outside the Hindu caste system, are often treated as fit only to perform the most menial tasks.
One Dalit pastor told Release International: “Most of the BJP activists are higher caste. They don’t want Christianity to grow because it brings equality. As Christians we are no more their slaves.”