By BosNewsLife Africa Service
ZANZIBAR CITY, TANZANIA (BosNewsLife)– Leaders of Christians in Zanzibar, Tanzania’s semi-autonomous archipelago, have appealed for more religious freedom in the heavily Islamic region, after Muslim extremists allegedly destroyed at least two church buildings, while elsewhere believers were detained or harassed.
“All people should enjoy religious freedom,” including Christians, who comprise less than 3 percent of Zanzibar’s mainly Muslim population of roughly 1 million people, said church leader Dickson Maganga of the Tanzania Assemblies of God (TAG) in Zanzibar.
He spoke in statements monitored by BosNewsLife Sunday, January 15, after weeks of reported attacks against churches and Christians.
Christians said in one of the latest incidents a Muslim mob torched the building of the Pentecostal Evangelical Fellowship of Africa in Mtufani Mwera, about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the capital Zanzibar City.
The December 3 attack came just dats after Muslim militants reportedly attacked a building of the Siloam Church in Kianga, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Zanzibar City.
Pastor Boniface Kaliabukama told reporters that over “100 Muslim extremists” were seen shouting “Allahu Akbar”, or “Allah is Great” during the November 26 attack.
Maganga said the atatcks have underscored the need for more freedom. “People from Zanzibar should be free to move to the Tanzania mainland to build mosques…[But] people from the Tanzania mainland should be free to build churches in Zanzibar,” he added in statements published by local media.
Local residents have linked at least some of the recent attacks to disputes over land, but Christians have also reported growing anti-Christian sentiments.
Aid and advocacy group Open Doors, which supports the “persecuted Church” , said minority Christians on Zanzibar’s main islands of Unguja, Tumbatu and Pemba, have difficulties to gather. “Registration of churches remains difficult. There is no church on Tumbatu Island and most churches on Unguja Island are for expatriates.”
It expressed concerns that “Islamic extremism continues to grow, causing problems for Christians.” Additionally, “Believers still struggle to gain access to jobs and education” Open Doors said, adding that “reaching Muslims with the Gospel [of Jesus Christ] remains very difficult.”
Christian converts with a Muslim background are among those targeted by Muslim extremists in the region. Several are known to have been harassed and detained, BosNewsLife reported earlier.
Among then is a Christian further south in Comoros, three tiny islands between Mozambique and Madagascar that declared independence from France in 1975.
In fresh comments published this week he said he has been suffering from a skin disease contracted in prison after his family threw him out. BosNewslife was requested not to publish his name amid security concerns.
He said his troubles began in March 2010 when, returning from an overnight prayer meeting, he found someone had broken into his house in Mdjwayezi village.
While investigating, police stumbled onto Christian materials – a Bible and film – which allegedly changed the course of inquiry from pursuing thieves to asking why the Christian man was practicing a forbidden faith.
After eight months of incarceration without trial he was released on February 29, 2011, on health grounds.
The man, an active member of an underground church, said his family has rejected him. The Christian explained he did not know who to turn to for shelter, medicine and food. It was not immediately clear what kind of assistance he received from his church. “I cannot sleep at night – the whole body is itching and hurting…I need medical assistance – my family has deserted me.”
He isn’t alone. “Evangelism is forbidden for Christians, and those who convert to Christianity can expect severe reprisals from the community and their own family,” Open Doors said in an assessment statement obtained by BosNewsLife.
Open Doors said “There has been an increase” in what it called “Arab Muslim fundamentalists coming to the islands to teach their doctrine in the local Mosques.”
With island Muslims seeing Christianity as the means by which mainland Tanzania would dominate them, tensions have increased in the area, according to church observers.
“The degree of persecution toward Christians in Comoros differs between the three islands,” said Open Doors. Yet, “Although the numbers of local believers in underground churches continues to be small, there is growth both in quantity and depth of faith,” the group added.
It said it has been supplying funds towards the translation, production and distribution of Christian literature, while “giving support and training to Christians in the country.”
Open Doors said it had urged its supporters to “pray that Sharia” or Islamic law, “will not be introduced to these islands” and that “Christians have wisdom to resist the influence” of what it called “occult movements.” (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).