By BosNewsLife Africa Service
DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA (BosNewsLife)– Dozens of Christian worship places have been destroyed by Islamic extremists in Tanzania and church leaders are fleeing its heavily Muslim island of Zanzibar, as the persecution of Christians spreads throughout East Africa, a human rights chief said Monday, November 12.
“As of May [about] 25 churches and convents have been destroyed. This destruction is mostly confined to [semi-autonomous] Zanzibar where the population is 99 percent Muslim and openly hostile to Christians,” explained William Stark, regional manager for Africa of advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC)
In one of the latest just revealed incidents, violence broke out last month after a Muslim boy encouraged a Christian boy to urinate on a Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims, on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, the capital.
“As a result of this meeting, the Christian boy was threatened with being beheaded and at least five churches were destroyed,” Stark said.
Bishop Fabian Obeid, the Chairman of the Pastor’s Fellowship in Zanzibar, stressed in published remarks that when the two boys met, the Muslim boy bragged that if someone was to urinate on the Kuran, that person would be turned into a snake, a dog or a rat.
“The Christian boy [was] interested with this scenario and without giving it a second thought urinated on the Koran,” he added in a statement distributed by ICC.
When the Muslim boy informed his parents, they allegedly decided to confront the parents of the Christian boy. After discovering they weren’t at home, the Muslim parents reported the incident to a nearby mosque in a move that eventually sparked violence, Christians said.
“Days later, a mob of Muslim youths gathered at the mosque after being stirred up at Friday prayer. Their intent was to punish the Christian boy for desecrating the Koran. Police were alerted of the situation and the boy was detained for protection against the mob,” well-informed Stark recalled.
They apparently demanded that police hand over the boy to the crowd and behead him, seen as an appropriate punishment for desecrating the Koran according to ultra conservative interpretations of Islamic law.
“When the police refused to release the boy, the mob began to riot…the mob decided to turn their rage on churches and other Christian property in the area,” Stark said,
The mob burned down five churches, including the Seven Day Church, the Anglican Church and the Assemblies of God Church, Christians said Other property belonging to Christians in the area was also destroyed including a car belonging to the Anglican Church pastor, according to ICC investigators.
“As the riots continued, the Evangelical Assemblies of God Church in Tanzania was pulled down. In the following days, unrest in the Muslim community continued, leading to the destruction of more properties across the country and the lives of Christian leaders being threatened,” Stark said in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife.
The violence also spread to Zanzibar, where on October 18, a mob of Muslim protestors carrying clubs, swords and machetes invaded two churches shouting “We want the head of Bishop Shayo” as they tried to enter his Roman Catholic church, Christians claimed.
When they failed to break into the church, the mob moved on to the Anglican church of Reverend. Emmanuel Masoud where the crowd broke windows and were seen hacking at the doors while chanting: “We need the head of Masoud!” and We want the heads of all the church pastors in Zanzibar!”
Pastor Lucian Mgaywa of the Church of God in Zanzibar, said in a statement that, “These chants caused a lot of panic and some pastors, fearing for their lives, fled the island of Zanzibar to the mainland of Tanzania,” though the government later “intervened and provided security.”
However, “To date, no arrests have been made in connection with attacks on churches in Zanzibar, leading many to question whether the local government condones these activities,” Stark added.
Most violence has been linked to the Islamic separatist group ‘Association for the Islamic Mobilization and Propagation’ (UAMSHO) which wants Zanzibar to become independent from mainland Tanzania. “In recent years, UAMSHO has become increasingly fundamental in its religious convictions and has been involved in several attacks on Christians in Zanzibar,” Stark noted.
“After the Evangelical Assemblies of God Church was destroyed [last month] a flag belonging to UAMSHO was raised over the ruins of the church,” said Bishop Fabian Obeid, Chairman of the Pastor’s Fellowship in Zanzibar.
Stark observed that the spreading Islamic attacks in Tanzania coincides with “an increase of Christian persecution throughout East Africa.” Even in countries such as Kenya, which is 80 percent Christian, Islamic extremist groups like al-Shabaab are beginning to take root and perpetrate more acts of violence against Christians.
“These extremist groups often use incidents like the boy desecrating the Kuran to stir up tensions in Muslim communities that have lived in peace for generations with their Christian neighbors,” Stark added.
He said the ICC has urged the government of Zanzibar to take a stand against these attacks and hold these groups accountable for their actions. “Until they do, thousands of Christians in East Africa will continue to live in fear,” Stark warned.
(With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos)