By Anson Liski, Associate Producer
The first Canadian soldiers of the 250 expected over the next year have arrived in Mali, West Africa. Canada will play a small but substantial role in supporting the United Nations (UN) mission. 15,000 UN soldiers are part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), that was established in 2013.
While Canadians will not be involved in direct combat, they will be conducting medical evacuation missions using Canada’s Chinook and Griffon helicopters. The Canadian Press reports that Canadian peacekeepers may still be put in harm’s way. General Jonathan Vance said, “Canadian troops could be called to provide fire support to other peacekeepers or defending Malian civilians.”
Despite the danger involved in MINUSMA, Canadian peacekeepers are looking forward to being a part of the mission. One of the first Canadian soldiers to land told The Canadian Press, “When the ramp of the Herc goes down on the tarmac, that’s a very, very good feeling. It’s hot, you can feel it here in the desert. But that feeling is great.”
Situated in a desert, they will have to deal with challenging weather conditions, including massive sandstorms.
Most of the civilian population that is able to get out of the conflict areas have made their way to the capital city, Bamako, in the southern part of Mali. Officials say this town is far enough away to be considered, ‘safe.’
OPEN DOORS CANADA HELPING MALIAN CHRISTIANS
Southern Mali is also home to a great majority of Malian Christians. To get an understanding of the situation there, I spoke with Gary Stagg, Executive Director of Open Doors Canada. For over 60 years, Open Doors has worked in the world’s most oppressive countries to serve persecuted Christians.
AL: Could you give a brief background about the conflict in Mali?
GS: Mali is a predominantly Muslim country and most Malians are adherents of Malikite Sunni Islam which is a version of Islam influenced by Sufism. This brand of Islam is moderate and tolerant of other faiths. In northern Mali, especially among the ethnic Tuareg, the influence of more radical versions of Islam has grown over the past few years. During the recent civil war, militant Islamic groups became active, especially in northern parts. These groups – particularly al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – continue to target UN peacekeepers.
AL: What is the backstory of Christianity in Mali?
GS: It was the White Fathers, a Roman Catholic missionary order, who brought Christianity to Mali in 1895. However, the growth of Christianity in Mali was very slow. It was only in 1936 that the first African priest was ordained and it was only in 1962 that the first Malian bishop was consecrated. Protestants came to the country in 1919 via the Gospel Missionary Union (GMU) from the United States. That was followed by the arrival of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1923.
AL: What is the situation for Christians in Mali today?
GS: Mali, as is typical in other West African states, has always had (mostly) moderate Islam dominance and a constitutionally secular political system which prohibits religious political parties, even though a high percentage of its population is Muslim. Christians used to have sufficient freedom in Malian society, including the presence of foreign Christian missionaries (although the northern part of the country had always been problematic for Christians). The situation changed when the creation of the independent state of Azawad in northern Mali was proclaimed in April 2012.
The Islamists, most of whom can be identified as Wahhabis, soon established an Islamic state system with a strict Sharia regime in the north. Most Christians fled before the Islamists took over. In the meantime, they destroyed churches and other Christian buildings. The Church in southern Mali has also been negatively affected by the increasing visibility of various Wahhabi groups. Although the rebels and the government have reached a peace agreement and international peacekeepers are in place, the tendency for Islamic radicalization in Malian society may continue, and increasingly put pressure on or physically harm the lives of Christians and their churches.
AL: What is Mali rated on the Open Doors watch list, and what does that mean for Christians in that country?
GS: Mali is rated at the 37th position on the 2018 World Watch List. The main challenge that Christians currently face in Mali is the presence of radical Islamic groups in the region and country, which creates fear and insecurity among Christians. In November 2015 Islamic militants stormed a luxury hotel in Bamako and killed more than 20 people, most of whom were Western tourists. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by al-Mourabitoun, an Islamist group formed in 2013. Another recent example of such attacks in Mali was a raid conducted by suspected Islamists against a resort frequented by foreigners and government officials. Despite a 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement signed between the rebels and the government of Mali, armed clashes between government troops and rebels have continued.
AL: Where are Christians located relative to the conflict area?
GS: Mali has a small number of charismatic and Pentecostal churches mainly found in the southern part of the country. Due to their style of worship and their likelihood to be more engaged in evangelism such communities are likely to draw the ire and hostility of society at large.
The level of violence – especially against Christians in the northern part of the country – is very high and increased in WWL 2018. Both government and international peacekeeping forces operating in northern Mali have not been able to fully restore law and order and guarantee the security and freedom of Christians. An assortment of militant Islamic groups are still active in the north and have occasionally also attacked parts of the country that were considered to be safe.
On 16 November 2016, suspected Islamic militants shot and killed the Christian deputy mayor of Kerana. Moussa Issah Bary was a rare example of a Christian member of the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group which is one of the most prominent Muslim ethnic groups in the whole of West Africa.
A Colombian nun, Gloria Argoti, was kidnapped by a consortium of Islamic groups on 7 February 2017 in the southern part of the country which is normally considered safe. The militant groups include Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Christians in Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao have not been allowed to rebuild churches which were destroyed a few years ago.
AL: What do you feel the future holds for all people in Mali?
The main trend facing Mali is the rising influence of militant Islam and Wahhabism in the country. It will take a long time to build up a Christian presence again in the north of Mali.
Islamic militants continue to be active in Mali, notwithstanding the peace deal that was signed in 2015 and will remain a threat in the years to come. The peace deal is very fragile and the government and UN peacekeepers are still unable to establish the authority of the government in some parts of the country. The restoration of law and order, as well as governmental authority in the northern part of the country, is a prerequisite for the improvement of the situation for Christians in northern Mali.
The situation in Mali cannot be seen in isolation; it is part of the overall rise of Islamic militancy and Wahhabism in the entire region. Therefore, the trajectory of the political and security situation in the whole region is very crucial for the future of Mali. Furthermore, even if the government of Mali and other regional states manage to crush the armed Islamic militancy of groups like AQIM, the radicalization of the youth and society at large by this group is a more intractable problem that is creating a hostile environment for Christians for years to come.
With files from Susan Ponting and Monica Ratra.
Photos from Open Doors International