Category Archives: Africa

Christian Militia – When Do We Support Them?

The ominous words “Christian militia” have been appearing with increasing frequency in the media.

In some cases the words indicate groups that are fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. These are mainly Assyrian Christians who have taken up arms to defend their homelands.

This is a natural response to the depravities of Islamic State, and I am sure that Christians in the West will instinctively support them (even after reading the headline on one magazine article about their activities: “Ex-skinheads and angry white men swell ranks of Christian militia fighting Islamic State”).

But recently Pope Francis made a visit to the Central African Republic, and the words “Christian militia” appeared regularly in media reports of his visit. This time the connotations were definitely negative.

The Central African Republic has a Christian majority, with Muslims only about 15 per cent of the population. But in March 2013 Muslim rebel groups grabbed control of the government, and then launched a campaign of violence against Christians and others.

The response was predictable, and rapidly the nation descended into bloody civil war. As I wrote recently, the Central African Republic is often now described as a failed state in permanent crisis.

In particular, the “Anti-Balaka” militia group, often described as Christian, has been accused of a significant escalation of the violence, including the mutilation of some of its Muslim victims, the burning of entire villages and ethnic cleansing that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

Is this group really Christian? I am not in a position to judge, though certainly it appears to have Christians among its leaders. In any case, it has been condemned by the church and by many local Christians, and we in the West must condemn it too. Its activities have gone well beyond self-defense, regardless of the provocation.

Indeed, it is a sad fact that Christians have been involved in reprehensible conduct in several parts of Africa in recent times.

I have been reading a provocative new book, “The Looting Machine,” by Tom Burgis, a correspondent with Britain’s Financial Times newspaper. The sub-title of the book makes clear its theme: “Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth.”

In one chapter, “God Has Nothing to Do with It,” he describes how some Christians in Nigeria are actively involved in the corruption that plagues that country. However, he also quotes a Catholic archbishop who says that often this is a case of failed politicians using religion as a weapon to stir up the masses.

“God is not such a weakling that we must kill for him,” says the archbishop.

Amen to that.

Pope to Visit One of the Saddest Places on Earth

Pope Francis plans to visit the Central African Republic later in November, and you do not have to be Catholic to want to pray for him.

For this country – a land-locked former French colony situated between Cameroon and South Sudan – has to be one of the saddest places on earth.

As if to confirm it, just last week the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank that works to promote global prosperity, released its annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 142 countries in terms of both wealth and wellbeing.

It would be little surprise that heading the list was Norway, followed by Switzerland and Denmark. But right at the bottom, at Number 142, worse even than Afghanistan, Haiti, Chad, Syria or Sudan, was the Central African Republic.

The country has a Christian majority, though the “Operation World” prayer handbook makes clear some of the sins of the church.

“A failure on the part of leaders to demonstrate Christ-like humility and graciousness in their walk and ministry not only stunts their own fruitfulness but passes on their flaws to their congregations,” it says. “High moral standards and honesty are frequently lacking in the churches.”

Despite considerable natural and mineral resource wealth, the country has been beset by military coups, civil conflict and intense corruption.

This all came to a head in March 2013 when Muslim rebel groups seized control of the government. Muslims comprise only about 15 per cent of the population, and since that time the country has descended into bloody violence. It is often now described as a failed state in permanent crisis.

Armed Muslim groups have killed thousands of Christians and forced many more to flee. Christian militia groups have responded in kind – despite being condemned by many church leaders for their violence – with armed attacks on the Muslim minority. Some 10 per cent of the population are now refugees.

Pope Francis will arrive in the country after visits to Kenya and Uganda. He plans meetings with religious leaders, including senior Muslims officials, and will call upon refugees and attend a prayer vigil.

But as the violence escalates, there has been speculation that he might even be forced to cancel his visit.

So pray that it goes ahead, and pray that he might succeed in the role of peacemaker. Few countries in Africa – or anywhere – are more in need of peace.

Why I Wanted “Timbuktu” to Win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

Congratulations to “Ida,” the Polish winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. But I was hoping that another of the five nominees, “Timbuktu,” would win.

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013I’ve not seen either movie, but I hear that “Timbuktu” is a powerful portrayal of life in that West African city – in northern Mali – after Al Qaeda-associated Islamists took control. For 10 harsh months they governed the city, and the surrounding region, with growing repression, before French-led forces kicked them out.

In the words of one writer

It dares to tackle one of the most urgent topics of our time, yet it’s also a magnificent work of art. It celebrates the force of love and the resilience of humanity even as it delves deep into the nature of evil. It’s been a while since I saw a film that pulls off a comparable feat.

Though my own reasons for wanting the film to win were a little more selfish. For my own novel “Festival in the Desert,” part of my Brother Half Angel series of thrillers, is also set in Timbuku. And it too tells a story of Islamists who are trying to undermine the authorities.

In addition, my book has a strong Christian theme, featuring a mission hospital in the city that is under attack.

But “Ida” – which also has a religious theme – was the winner, so congratulations. And I look forward to viewing “Timbuktu.”

Thanks in the Midst of Suffering – Is Christianity Doomed in the Mideast?

Is Christianity doomed in the Middle East? That is the question asked in a confronting article in Britain’s New Statesman journal.

Coptic Martyr3It is also one of the themes of my thriller “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo,” although of course my book focuses just on Christians in Egypt.

I am relatively optimistic about the outlook for Egyptian Christians. As I tried to show in my novel, the Coptics are a praying people who, despite enduring many centuries of hardship and martyrdom, stand strong, proud and defiant. For nearly 2,000 years they have remained true to their calling – true to Christ, true to the Bible, true to their teachings and unafraid of death.

But the outlook for much of the region’s remaining Christians is certainly grim. The author of the New Statesman article is Gerard Russell, who has also written the recently published book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.”

He says:

Without the Christians, the region will be even less liberal and more monochrome, and will risk becoming more isolated.

The Middle East would also lose a part of the heritage and history that all its people, Muslim or Christian, have in common. For the Christian communities have preserved parts of their nations’ heritage: Aramaic in Iraq, pharaonic hymns in Egypt. Their diversity (there are innumerable sects) reflects the region’s history, each sect tracing its origin to the political developments of one era or another. The schools that Christians run in the Middle East, open to Muslims, have educated generations of Arabs.

We sometimes regard it as unthinkable that Christianity could all but disappear from the land of its birth. Yet we should recall that Christians have been virtually wiped out from much of North Africa, where they were once so prevalent.

It is certainly a cause for sadness. But remember too that, at the same time Christianity is blossoming in parts of Asia and Africa. In the midst of suffering there is always a reason for thanks.

Terror in Africa – Should We Be Surprised?

The news from the West African nation of Niger is heart-breaking. Around 70 churches have been set on fire, and more than a dozen people killed, as Islamists sought to take some kind of twisted revenge over the Charlie Hebdo outrage in France.

Never mind that the scummy magazine regularly attacks Christians as profanely as it vilifies Muslims. Never mind that the president of Niger flew to Paris to participate in the giant march organized there to protest the murder of some of the magazine’s staff.

The Islamists decided that they were upset at a new cover from the magazine, deemed to be provocative, and that they needed to protest.

But should we really be surprised that they chose to burn down churches and slaughter Christians?

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013My thriller “Festival in the Desert” was set in the West African nation of Mali, adjacent to Niger. It concerned Islamists trying to close down a hospital there that was run by Christian missionaries. I chose Mali, because it is a relatively exotic country, boasting some great music, an exciting annual festival in the desert and the famous city of Timbuktu.

In fact the hospital was based on one in Niger, in the town of Galmi, run by the SIM Christian mission organization. I even included some incidents based on stories told to me by a former missionary doctor at Galmi.

And why should a Christian hospital be under attack? Because throughout Muslim Africa a virulent form of fundamentalist Islam, often dubbed Wahhabism, has been spreading, with roots planted especially by the Saudis. For such people Christians, Jews and even moderate Muslims are the enemy.

Here is an excerpt from “Festival in the Desert:”

“It’s also all these new Saudi-sponsored mosques in town,” said Dr Steyn. “There’s more than a dozen of them. All recent. They send their imams from Saudi Arabia. Telling the women they have to wear veils and the men that they have to stop drinking alcohol and stop talking to people of other religions.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. And according to the briefing I received, both Al Qaeda and the new mosques are recruiting young men, sending them off for training at madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These men come back home with radically new beliefs. They’re not tolerant any more. They hate the West, hate America, hate Christians.”

The commentator Mark Steyn (no connection to the Dr Steyn in my book) has written:

The most successful example of globalization is not Starbucks or McDonald’s but Wahhabism, an obscure backwater variant of Islam practiced by a few Bedouin deadbeats that Saudi oil wealth has now exported to every corner of the earth…You can live on the other side of the planet and, when Starbucks opens up in town, you might acquire a taste for a decaf latte, but that’s it: otherwise, life goes on. By contrast, when the Saudi-funded preachers hung out their shingles on every Main Street in the west, they radicalized a significant chunk of young European Muslims: they transformed not just their beverage habits but the way they look at the societies in which they live.

Some African countries are trying to halt this radicalization. I have written of attempts by Senegal, which borders Mali, to reach out to Israel, in part as a reaction to the worrying spread of radical Islam.

We can only wish that country luck. But, given the power and money behind the Wahhabi tentacles, we should not really be surprised when Islamists in West Africa choose to burn down churches.

And we should not be surprised when it happens again.

Growing Tolerance, Reduced Persecution – Something to Pray About

Events in the Middle East during 2014, and now in Paris at the start of 2015, suggest that militant Islamism is on the move. At the same time it often seems that the persecution of Christians is intensifying throughout the Muslim world.

The newly released World Watch List from the Open Doors organization, ranking the 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe, shows that fully 35 of them – including eight of the worst 10 – are Muslim nations.

Yet Christians need to be aware that not all Muslim countries persecute Christians.

Take the West African nation of Benin. It is one of 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the body which describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world.”

Benin’s president, Boni Yayi, was born into a Muslim family. But he is now a devout evangelical Christian. He worships at his local Pentecostal church, where he sometimes also preaches the sermon, and has expressed a desire to “evangelize the world” when his presidential term ends in 2016.

In fact, some Muslim nations are as nervous about the advance of extremist Islamism as are Christians

Senegal, also in West Africa, is overwhelmingly Muslim, yet, in the words of the Operation World prayer guide, “enjoys religious freedom and is remarkably tolerant toward other faiths – a point of pride for Senegalese.” It is noteworthy for its Mouride Brotherhood order of Sufi Islam, which stresses the importance of discipline and hard work.

However, the Operation World guide adds ominously: “Aggressive Islamist groups, funded by Saudi Arabia and Libya, are making inroads and threaten the tolerant status quo.”

This helps explain a remarkable outreach by Senegal – towards Israel. Just last month a new high-tech drip-irrigated vegetable farm was inaugurated in the country, an Israeli initiative that came about after a request to the Israeli Embassy from the First Lady of Senegal.

A few weeks earlier six senior imams from Senegal had toured Israel, accompanied by members of the Senegalese media. They met the Israeli president and local rabbis, and visited the Yad Vashem holocaust museum and the Western Wall.

These are small steps, but they are also brave ones, as they have sparked criticism from some fellow Muslims. Yet Senegal’s political and religious leaders have seen what happened in neighboring Mali, where extremist Islamists known as AQIM – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – overran large parts of the country in 2012.

So if there is any good coming from the advance of Islamist extremism it is that it forces countries and people to take sides. It could mean a growing openness among some Muslim countries towards working with other faiths, along with reduced levels of persecution for Christians. This is certainly something for Christians to pray about.

Christian Persecution – A Book the Church Needs to Read

A harrowing report in the Baptist Press last year noted that Nigeria was, at that time, by far the most lethal country for Christians.

According to the article:

The publicly reported Christian casualties in Nigeria last year [2012] were greater than the Christian casualties of Pakistan, Syria, Kenya and Egypt combined. In fact, Nigeria alone accounted for almost 70 per cent of Christians killed globally. This makes Nigeria the most lethal country for Christians by a huge margin.

More recently the unfolding tragedies in Iraq and Syria have led to the slaughter and exile of innumerable Christians. Yet Nigeria remains a killing field for too many believers, and this is the theme of the exciting new thriller from Lela Gilbert, “The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight.”

Short-term US missionary Nate Gregory was held by Islamic extremists in Nigeria, then rescued by an elite team of commandoes, working for a mysterious Israeli tycoon, David Levine, who is using his wealth to fight the jihad threat.

Nate’s book proposal ends up on the desk of publishing house acquisitions editor Karen Burke, and much of the story is told through her eyes, as she and Nate travel together to Nigeria. There, in several dramatic incidents that confront her with the reality of religious warfare, she is forced into the realisation that her views on the peaceful nature of Islam don’t hold up when extremists are burning down churches and kidnapping women in the name of Allah.

At the same time, she also finds herself becoming increasingly involved with Nate.

The words “ripped from the headlines” have become a cliché, but they describe abundantly this excellent book. It is well researched, well written and features all the drama a reader would want from an international thriller, including, it must be noted, violence and a modicum of (somewhat opaque) sex.

The persecution of Christians around the globe, and particularly in the Muslim world, is an escalating terror. Yet too many Western Christians seem uninformed or, at best, aware but unwilling to do much.

We need more educational resources, in all forms of media, that vividly portray the new reality. That is why novels like “The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight” serve such an important role. This is a novel that the church needs to read.

* The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. See an interview with Lela Gilbert here.

“The Increasing Reach Of Islamist Extremism In Africa”

By Martin Roth

The latest edition of The Economist has a cover story that it titles “Afrighanistan.” Inside is a four-page Briefing, “Jihad in Africa,” which begins: “Terrorism in Algeria and war in Mali demonstrate the increasing reach of Islamist extremism in Africa.”

Here is a brief excerpt from my novel “Festival in the Desert,” published last year, in which I touched on this problem. The setting is a (fictional) mission hospital in Timbuktu, Mali.

Dr Becker began with a prayer. Through habit, he spoke in French, which was the official language of the hospital, even though not a single person at the table spoke French as a first language.

Then he looked up. “Another staff member has quit,” he said in his soft, correct English. “Intimidated by Islamists. We need to talk about the security of our hospital. Things are getting worse.”

“We seem to talk about that all the time,” grumbled Bobby.

“Because it is a real problem, man” said Dr Steyn. “A growing problem. Even a pacifist like you can surely realize that.” Dr Steyn loved to argue. He sometimes regaled the other doctors with hilarious stories of life at his Dutch Reformed church back in Pretoria, where, it seemed, mid-week business meetings regularly erupted into pitched battles over matters as trivial as car parking or the altar floral display. Then, at church on Sunday, everyone would greet each other lovingly as if nothing untoward had occurred just a few nights earlier.

“I’m not a pacifist…” began Bobby, before being interrupted.

“This is the third girl to quit in three months,” said Dr Becker. “A couple of men turned up near her home. They asked her why a good Muslim girl was working for a Christian hospital. And then they said there was a chance that she could be killed by people angry that she worked for Christians. They even hinted there might be shooting here at the hospital one day.”

“They really said that?” asked Dr Ryu.

“They always say that,” said Bobby. “That’s always the threat they use to intimidate our girls.”

“Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” said Dr Steyn.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” retorted Bobby. “And the Malian authorities don’t want it to happen. They are working to…”

“The Malian authorities…” The big South African sneered with derision. “Do you think they’re going to save us? Your faith is even stronger than I realized.”

“Yes, actually…”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, we shall not argue today.” Dr Becker raised both hands in exasperation, though to Bobby it looked more like a signal of surrender.

Bobby felt sorry for the German. He knew that it was not only the day-to-day work that gave him so much stress. He was also under enormous pressures from his supervising board of governors, back in Hannover, where recently it seemed that constant conflict reigned.

Older members of the board stuck to the original mission of helping the afflicted. But the younger members appeared more concerned about saving souls, and wondered why so much money was going to a region where, it seemed, the residents were becoming more stridently Muslim and increasingly antagonistic towards Christianity.

Some were even grumbling that, with funds becoming increasingly hard to source, and with fewer doctors available, then why not simply hand the hospital over as a free gift to what appeared to be a growing number of Muslims who hated this Christian presence in their midst. Let them run it. Or, as one of the governors expressed it to Bobby during a brief visit from Germany, let them run it into the ground.

“I have received a briefing from the German embassy in Bamako,” said Dr Becker. “Everything is getting worse.”

“Surely it can’t get much worse,” said Dr Ryu. “We all know that a lot of countries are telling their citizens not to travel to this part of Mali.”

“Doesn’t this festival start tomorrow?” asked the South African. “This festival in the desert? What’s it called…?”

“It’s called the Festival in the Desert,” smiled Bobby.

“That’s meant to attract the tourists. How will it manage if no one comes?”

“They’re still coming. I’ve just treated one downstairs for contaminated cocaine.”

“Drugs is just one of the problems,” said Dr Becker. “And it is getting worse, according to the embassy briefing I’ve received. We all know that the Sahara has become the transit point for shipments from South America, heading for Europe. That’s not new. But the big problem, the main problem now, is Al Qaeda. They are increasingly active. They are targeting this whole region. The whole of West Africa. All these traditionally moderate Muslim countries. They view them as a place for expansion. They are trying to radicalize the people. That’s why we see them in the markets more and more. Talking to local people.”

“It’s also all these new Saudi-sponsored mosques in town,” said Dr Steyn. “There’s more than a dozen of them. All recent. They send their imams from Saudi Arabia. Telling the women they have to wear veils and the men that they have to stop drinking alcohol and stop talking to people of other religions.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. And according to the briefing I received, both Al Qaeda and the new mosques are recruiting young men, sending them off for training at madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These men come back home with radically new beliefs. They’re not tolerant any more. They hate the West, hate America, hate Christians.”

Dr Becker paused and glanced around. He looked a forlorn figure, with his white hair and lined face and wire-rimmed spectacles that sat at the end of his nose. “And then there are the Tuaregs. Thousands of them were forced to escape from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, and now they’re back home, heavily armed and stirring up trouble. They’ve renewed their war of liberation against the government.”

 “Are they a threat to us?”

“They’re a threat to everyone. They say they want self-rule. But a lot of criminal elements are involved as well. They’re involved in kidnap. Extortion. Whatever. Westerners will always be a target. And they are all mixed up together.”

“Who are?”

“Al Qaeda. The Tuaregs. The drug dealers. Sometimes they’re enemies, fighting each other. But sometimes they’re friends, when it suits them. This whole region is becoming a lawless Wild West.” He looked at Bobby, the only American in the room, as if he were somehow responsible for all lawless Wild Wests around the world.

“So what does all this mean?” asked Dr Ryu.

“It means our hospital is a target.”

“A target? From whom?”

“Al Qaeda, most likely.”

“Your embassy said that?”

“They believe it.”

“Believe it? They know of something being planned against our hospital? I thought it was all just a lot of talk.”

“They don’t have evidence that anything is planned against our hospital. But they told me that Al Qaeda loves Christian targets. And Jewish targets too, of course, though there’s none of them here. And we know that Al Qaeda has already kidnapped foreigners in this region. That’s how they finance their operations. By extorting ransoms. It’s the reason so many governments in the West are telling their nationals not to travel here.”

Bobby objected. “But we’re serving Muslim people here. They love us. The government wants us here. Everyone knows that.”

Dr Steyn spoke up. “Come on, man. Al Qaeda is out to cause trouble. They want Christian targets. They want to kidnap people. We’re one of the most visible. What about those ten people killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan a couple of years ago. Including doctors. Or the French priests killed in Algeria by Islamists? Including a doctor. They don’t care if the local people love us or if the government supports us. We’re Christians and we’re the enemy.”