Mali’s Chris­tians re­turn to church un­der po­lice guard

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

As the sun starts to fall, the call to prayer at the mosque echoes through­out Gao, a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim town in north­ern Mali. At that same mo­ment, a small church bell nearby also rings. It’s a re­minder that even in a town where just four years ago strict Is­lamic law was in force, some Chris­tians have re­turned to re­build their con­gre­ga­tion, which fled the ji­hadist oc­cu­pa­tion.

This is the first Christ­mas they’ve been able to hold a ser­vice at the Catholic church, which was torched in 2012 by the Al-Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants who took over the ma­jor towns in north­ern Mali that year. Yet even as they cel­e­brate, the fear of per­se­cu­tion is still wide­spread. Po­lice stood by to pro­tect the church as wor­ship­pers met Satur­day and they re­turned again yes­ter­day for the morn­ing ser­vice. In a sign of the dan­gers that lurk, a Swiss aid worker was ab­ducted from her home by armed men on Christ­mas Eve.

The turnout this year at the Satur­day night ser­vice was only sev­eral dozen peo­ple. In to­tal, there are now about 125 to 150 Chris­tians who have come back - though that is still only half of what the pop­u­la­tion once was, says Philippe Omore, pres­i­dent of the Chris­tian com­mu­nity in Gao.

“The con­gre­gants have been fear­ful they don’t want to come to the church yet so we must raise aware­ness,” he said. In­side the church on Christ­mas Eve, a small choir of 10 peo­ple sang hymns in front of a tree lit up with col­or­ful lights that was set next to a small na­tiv­ity scene. Af­ter the two-hour ser­vice, church mem­bers met in a din­ing area on site to share sand­wiches and salad.

Many of the ex­trem­ists who ruled Gao in 2012 came from out­side the coun­try Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia, Egypt and Mau­ri­ta­nia - and they en­forced their strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam upon the lo­cal com­mu­nity, where tol­er­ance had long reigned be­tween Mus­lims and Chris­tians.

While the West African coun­try is over­whelm­ingly Mus­lim, some Malians con­verted to Chris­tian­ity dur­ing colo­nial­ism when the coun­try was ruled by pre­dom­i­nantly Catholic France.

French forces ul­ti­mately lib­er­ated the town in 2013 but Chris­tians who had fled to cen­tral and south­ern Mali waited about a year to make sure the peace would hold be­fore they re­turned. Next they had to re­build the church that had been de­stroyed by ji­hadists.

“Christ­mas brings us joy in spite of the se­cu­rity threats,” said the Rev. Afeku An­thero, a pri­est from Uganda. “On this night, God sent us his son as the prince of peace. Peace should reign in our hearts, in the Chris­tian com­mu­nity and in our coun­try. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for Mali where we need peace and where it has been dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile and unite us.”

Still, Omore says life re­mains ten­u­ous for the Chris­tians who have re­turned, and peace is a dream at this point. “Be­fore the cri­sis, we could go walk on the sand dunes out­side of Gao but to­day be­cause of the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion that is no longer pos­si­ble. We miss it, and we want to live as we did in the past - free and with­out fear for our safety.” —AP

GAO, Mali: Catholic faith­fuls sing dur­ing a mass to cel­e­brate Christ­mas at Philippe Amore Catholic Church in Gao, Mali. — AP

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