ZANZIBAR, Tanzania (Morning Star News) – Islamic extremist attacks and land grabs on this semi-autonomous island off the coast of Tanzania have continued unabated even as violence has increased on the mainland.
The May 5 bombing of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Arusha killed a 45-year-old woman, a 16-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. Of the two Tanzanians and four foreigners arrested – now officially identified as one from Saudi Arabia and three from the United Arab Emirates – only one Tanzanian national reportedly remains in custody as a suspect.
While Islamic extremist activity has increased in Tanzania, Christians on the Zanzibar archipelago have recently suffered attacks by Islamists and the separatist group Uamsho (Re-awakening). Uamsho, the Association for Islamic Mobilization and Propagation, has issued explicit threats to Christians on Zanzibar Island since October 2012.
At midnight on April 20, Islamic extremists in Kianga, 16 kilometers (11 miles) from Zanzibar City, demolished most of the Pool of Siloam church building, a church leader said. Three suspects were arrested, only to be released after three days.
“When we tried to follow up the case, we found out that some of the information concerning the pulling down of the church was missing,” church pastor Israel Baraka Elijah told Morning Star News. “Hence, we decided to give up all together.”
Damages were estimated at $2,500, he added. Muslim extremists had attacked the church building before, setting part of it on fire on Feb. 19 and battering it with sledge hammers in November 2011.
Buildings aren’t the only targets. Suspected Islamic extremists on Feb. 17 shot and killed the Rev. Evaristus Mushi, a 56-year-old Roman Catholic priest, in the Mtoni area outside Zanzibar City. The murder came nearly two months after the Christmas Day shooting of another Catholic priest, the Rev. Ambrose Mkenda, that seriously injured him. Uamsho had left leaflets threatening to kill church leaders of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Tanzania Assemblies of God and Pentecostal Church denominations.
The Islamist group is fighting for full autonomy of the Zanzibar archipelago; it arose after Zanzibar’s primary opposition, the Civic United Front, formed a government with the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party in 2010.
How Uamsho’s separatist agenda could overlap with Islamic extremists’ objectives on the mainland remains to be seen, but the Zanzibar-based group has increased in stature by appealing to Islamist sentiments. While Tanzania’s population is 34.2 percent Muslim and 54 percent Christian, according to Operation World, the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian Ocean about 25 miles off the Tanzanian coast is more than 97 percent Muslim.
Islamists burned several church buildings in various parts of Tanzania last October after an argument between two children about the Koran resulted in a Christian boy allegedly defiling Islam’s sacred book (see Morning Star News, Oct. 19, 2012). In Kigoma, on the western border, two church buildings were set ablaze on Oct. 14, 2012, and the roof of another one was destroyed. In Dar es Salaam, where two boys’ argument over the Koran set off the violence, three church buildings were set on fire on Oct. 12, and another was destroyed on Oct. 18.
The attacks on church buildings came after Muslims began falsely asserting that Christians had sent the Christian boy to the Muslim boy to urinate on the Koran in the Mbagala area of Dar es Salaam on Oct. 10, sources said.
On Oct. 17, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania leaders released a statement saying church buildings had also been set ablaze in Mdaula, Mto wa Mbu, Tunduru and Rufiji. The Mbagala attacks, they stated, resulted from inflammatory statements by local religious leaders.
On the island of Zanzibar, Islamist attacks have been relatively primitive, but extremists have more subtle ways of oppressing the church. When a non-Muslim organization or person buys land from a Muslim, church leaders said, Islamic extremists commonly force the sellers to return the money, claiming, “Why receive money from an infidel?”
Those who resist such pressure are persecuted, they say, and partisan government machinery does not help matters.
Anna Filipo Barihuta, a 55-year-old widow whose late husband had sold land to a church in 2007 only to have Muslim extremists destroy it in 2008, finds herself the object of Islamists’ hostility as they try to wrest the land from her.
The Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church in Chukwani, outside Zanzibar City, is still the owner of the land, but the Muslim extremists have been challenging that in court. At a hearing on the disputed land on April 28, the court postponed the case until Aug. 19, Barihuta said.
“When I returned from court,” Barihuta said, “I found a heap of human feces at the door of my house, which to me is a warning sign that I was no longer wanted in the place.”
An Islamic sheikh who asked not to be named for security reasons concurred that Muslims are pressuring her to leave the area.
“The Muslims always say I am an infidel, and that I have welcomed a big infidel,” she said. “The Muslims claim that my family forcefully entered the area and that we allowed the church to be built in an Islamic environment, but they want to put up a mosque instead of the church.”
In their bid to contest Barihuta’s late husband’s right to have sold the land to the church, the extremists have altered the name of the woman who sold it to him from Amina Zadiki to Amina Sarehe, Christian leaders said. The sons of Amina Sarehe are denying the land was sold to Barihuta’s late husband, Harun Gikaru, they said.
Since 2008, the church and the former owner have spent 10 million Tanzanian shillings (US$6,000) on legal fees, Barihuta said.
“This case has drained the family resources, such that at the moment I am not able to meet the cost of paying the school fees for my eight children, one boy and seven girls,” she said. “Four of my children are in high school.”
Barihuta added that she is behind on payments to the attorney.
“I see that if justice is not done then soon,” she said, “I will lose the whole land, including that which I sold to the church.”
In Fuoni, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) from the capital, a pastor whose name is withheld said his church has endured constant attacks.
“Every Sunday when we are worshipping, the Muslims throw stones on our church’s roof to interrupt our service,” he said. “At times, the Muslims forcefully enter into the church and switch off the sound systems, saying it is disturbing the residents.”
In Mbweni, a Church of God congregation has also suffered at the hands of extremist groups. Muslim extremists prohibited the church from worshiping on land it purchased on May 24, 2012, even after a district commissioner verified church ownership.
The extremists complained to Regional Commissioner Abdalla Mwinyi that residents did not need a church there, spurring Mwinyi to write to the church, “We have to listen to the voice of the residents. Please do not worship or construct the church, because it is a residential site.”
The stunned church protested in writing, and in July 2012 Zanzibar church leaders sent a delegation to the regional commissioner’s office to air their grievances, with Muslim leaders also present. The commissioner became furious, church leaders said.
“I am shocked at the letter that the church wrote,” Mwinyi told the group, according to the church leaders. “This is not the Tanzania mainland. I need a written apology saying, ‘We are sorry for using strong words,’ then I will allow the church to worship.”
The church complied, church leaders said, but Mwinyi still prohibited them from worshiping at the site. One Christian leader quoted Mwinyi as saying, “We only know of one religion in Zanzibar, which is Islam.”
In Kianga, Uamsho helped a gang of more than 50 people ruin a building belonging to the Church of God on April 4, 2012.
“The church was pulled down, leaving no place to worship,” said a church leader whose name is withheld. “No arrest has been made up to this point.”
The church is trying to erect a new structure.
“The sad news in Zanzibar is that all the bishops have been earmarked for assassination,” the pastor said. “It seems as if the government has no voice, yet we have a constitution which provides for freedom of religion. We need prayers. We are like people in fire. We welcome all those who are willing to help us put out this fire.”
In Maungani, some 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Zanzibar City, a Baptist Church pastor said his building was destroyed by Muslim extremists last Nov. 11. The previous Sept. 23, his children narrowly escaped death when his oldest was knifed, he said.
The local primary school unregistered their children, and the family has been forced to leave the area after receiving death threats from the Muslim community, he said.
Chipping Away at Church
On the archipelago’s island of Pemba, Muslim extremists in Wete have consistently shown hostility toward churches. Wete has only an Anglican and a Catholic church, and in 1970 the Muslim community pressured the Anglican congregation to move to a gravesite outside town.
In May 2012, several powerful Muslims encroached on that land and begun putting up structures, church leaders said. Others started cutting the barbed wire that marked the church boundary and began removing the sign of the cross on the land. The church has filed a court case, but encroachment has expanded.
The church building is in danger of collapsing due to loosening soil as buried bodies decay, church leaders said. The building has a large crack and a leaky roof.
“If nothing is done, then the church will collapse, the Muslims will take the church premise and soon there will be no church in Wete,” said a Christian whose name is withheld. “Our members are decreasing owing to sustained threats of attacks. Sometimes we are two, while other times we are 15.”
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