by Lela Gilbert
January 13, 2021
As this new year begins, it’s obvious that America is facing many challenges—some old, some new. And they most certainly cannot be taken lightly. However, those of us who focus on international religious freedom also concentrate on concerns beyond our shores, and a look at Africa’s recent history in the rear-view mirror reflects terrifying images. As one deadly assault after another fades out of sight, encroaching assailants are rushing forward at terrifying speed.
The largest country in Africa and the most commercially significant, Nigeria is the site of what has been described as a slow-motion genocide in which tens of thousands of Nigerian Christians have been massacred in recent years. A Family Research Council report published in July 2020 documents horrifying statistics of mass murders there, almost entirely at the hands of three Islamist terrorist groups: Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani jihadis.
Nigeria may be the worst example of violence against African Christians, but it is far from the only one. Violent incidents across the African continent are increasing. One notorious example in November 2020 was the reported beheading of 50 civilians in Mozambique—many of them Catholic Christians.
Fighters linked to Islamic State attacked several villages in Mozambique, killing civilians, abducting women and children, and burning down homes. The gruesome description of innocent people “herded” to their death on a soccer field, where they were systematically decapitated and dismembered, was nightmarish. That wasn’t the only such incident in 2020, and it certainly won’t be the last. Due to a hapless government response, ISIS continues its assaults, most recently on January 2, 2021.
In September 2020, an email from New Covenant Missions informed FRC that a Christian family had recently been arrested in Somalia—the infamous location of Black Hawk Down. Local police accused the couple of abandoning Islam, and even more dangerously, of evangelizing the people of Somaliland. According to Somali Bible Society, “The spokesperson’s speech was peppered with threats against local Christians.” We learned that the arrested man had been tortured; his wife had delivered a baby by C-section just weeks before and required urgent medical attention, and the baby needed maternal care and breastfeeding.
FRC and other Christian groups pleaded for prayer. Thankfully, we later learned that this courageous family had been released. But dangers to Christians in Somalia have not diminished. Nearly all of the believers there are converts from Islam, which means they can face a death sentence for apostacy if arrested.
Frequent reports of persecution incidents in East Africa abound. At the same time, West Africa has more than its share of anti-Christian violence—and is of ever-increasing concern.
The Washington Post reported, “One evening in late June, gunmen stormed a village in northern Burkina Faso and ordered people who had been chatting outside to lie down. Then the armed strangers checked everyone’s necks, searching for jewelry. They found four men wearing crucifixes—Christians. They executed them…”
Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Burkina Faso is one of several vulnerable West African countries that are frequently targeted for terrorism, including Christian persecution. The so-called “Group of Five” (G5) nations—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—face continuous threats and attacks. These are of deepening concern to international military analysts and religious freedom advocates alike, thanks to the tireless brutality of ISWAP, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, North Africa faces similar dangers. Likewise, reports from East Africa warn that ISIS, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia, and other Islamist groups are strengthening their numbers and increasing their territory. And unfortunately, what happens in Africa is unlikely to stay in Africa—economically, politically, or militarily. Radicalized Africans have already murdered innocents and torched churches in Europe. Little has been done in response, and most well-intentioned efforts have been largely ineffective.
In 2021 it is past time for the world to stop looking regretfully at Africa’s tragedies in the rear view mirror. Instead, a determined coalition of nations needs to step forward and begin to develop ways and means of extinguishing the surging jihadi violence. And it’s essential that our Christian communities continue not only to pray but to demand such action. Why? Because as the wildfire of terrorism continues to rage across that vast, violent continent, one thing is sure: It is Africa’s Christians who will continue to pay the ultimate price for the world’s inaction.