THE PERSECUTED CHRISTIAN CHURCH IN SOMALIA
The Christian people of Kenya, the closest and most friendly neighbor of Somalia know very little or nothing at all about the existence of Somali Christians. What do you think the world wide Christian family knows about the underground church of Somalia? Very few international Christian missions know about it, and even some of them, with their own reasons, prefer and support the Muslim fundamentalist Somalis who persecute the Somali believers.
Why is the Christian church seemingly not sustainable in Somalia? What is happening to the church in Somalia? Why does it appear that the Kingdom of God cannot be established among the Somalis? Are the Somalis not included in the Great Commission of our Lord? Why the great world Christian family apparently does not care about the suffering of the Somali church? These are the questions, which motivated me to undertake and write this research paper. But before we try to answer these questions, we will look at a brief history of the church development in Somalia.
I. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN SOMALIA
1. The early missions and missionaries
In 1886 a French Roman Catholic mission setup a mission base and established a school at the port town of Berbera in the then British protectorate of Somaliland. (Isse 1974) About the same time the Franciscan mission of the Roman Catholic Church and the Swedish Overseas Lutheran Mission each setup a mission base in Mogadishu and Kismayo towns respectively. Soon the harvest was plenty and the church was growing rapidly.
About ten year later when Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, the insurgent Muslim fundamentalist leader whom the British called the Mad Mullah of Somaliland arrived at Berbera town. There was a Somali church with hundreds of members, mainly young people and children in the boarding school.
One day Sayid Mohamed met two of the Christian children; one of them was wearing a wooden cross around his neck and talked to them.
“Are you Somalis?” He asked them.
“Yes, we are Somalis.” They answered.
“Tell me your names?”
“My name is John and this is my friend James.” Said one of the children.
“Are you not Muslims?” Sayid Mohamed enquired, while stripping off forcefully the cross necklace from the boy’s neck.
“No, we are not, we are Christians.” Said the second young boy with awe. (Isse 1974)
Sayid Mohamed left the boys very angry and swearing that he will fight with the Christians without reservation.
Ioan M. Lewis, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics wrote:
“The sheikh come into contact with the French Roman Catholic mission, which had opened a station in the north of the protectorate in 1891. This was originally at Berbera, but had now moved to Daimole, inland the road towards Sheikh. The story goes on that Sheikh Muhammad met a boy at the mission school and asked him his name. To his amazement and wrath, the boy replied, ‘John Abdullahi’. An other account relates the Sheikh met a party of boys from the mission who when he asked what clan they belong to – the stock Somali inquiry to elicit someone’s identity- replied, ‘the clan of the fathers.’ (In Somali, reer fadder), thus apparently denying their Somali identity (many of the boys were actually orphans).” (Lewis 1980,67).
Sayid Mohammed aroused the modern Muslim fundamentalism in Somaliland and later founded his Dervish insurgent organization. Few decades later the church was declining. Its members either Martyred, denied their faith and turned to Islam or exiled from the country.
The Swedish Overseas Lutheran Mission, the first Christian mission expedition arrived at Kismayo portal town in 1880s and setup a mission station there. Soon they expanded their mission work to Margarita (Jamame) Mugambo and Alexandra (Jilib) and other places. They started clinics and schools as well as a church. Then Jubbaland region was part of British Kenya.
The Swedish Mission worked among and preached the Gospel to the Cushitic Somali clans and the riverine Bantu communities. They faced not limitations and enjoyed the British protection. The church grew tremendously. Few decades later there was a church with hundreds of Somali members.
The church at Kismayo and Margarita continued to grow until Jubbaland was divided into two parts and Jubba river valley was annexed to the Italian Somali protectorate. Then the Italians expelled the Swedish Lutheran Mission from Somalia, and the church property was either taken over by the Roman Catholic Church or destroyed by the Somali Muslims. Persecution and church collapse occurred in the wake of the Lutheran mission expulsion. Although Jubba valley was until recently where most Somali Christians in Somalia lived, that church is gone forever.
2. The ten years of the church stability
During 1950s several Christian missions arrived in Somalia and Somali inhabited territories of Ethiopia and Kenya. But only three, namely The Swedish Lutheran Mission, Mennonite mission and Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) left with their footmarks among the Somalis.
Almost all the surviving first generation Somali believers are those who attended the mission schools at Mogadishu, Jiohar, Mahadai, Sheikh, Kismayo, Berbera, Jigjiga, Jamame and Kallafo. Most of these schools were run either by SIM, the Lutherans or the Mennonite Mission.
This time the church revived and started to grow, but more cautious and hideous. Small group house churches sprung up in several towns throughout the Somali territory. As the church started to grow, so was the persecution, murdering and forced exile.
3. The church under the socialist state
In 1969 when president Mohamed Siad Barre’s Socialist Military government came to power they introduced what they called scientific socialism, a Maoist kind of cult. They confiscated all the properties owned by the Christian missions and churches including the schools and clinics. Some of the missions and church organizations were also expelled from the country. (Eby 2003)
In 1974 president Siad Barre introduced a new law, which, contrary to traditional Islam, gave women the same inheritance rights as men, and in January 1975 executed ten of those religious sheikhs who preached in the mosques against the new law. Twenty-three others received long prison sentences. “By this action, taken in international women’s year, the government demonstrated its secular, reformist intentions –but at the cost of raising in an acute form the whole question of the Islamic identity of the Somali people.” (Lewis 1980, 213)
Muslim fundamentalism started to revive. Underground Muslim fundamentalist organizations both local and international sprang up throughout Somalia and the neighboring countries with the aim of establishing Islamic state in Somalia and the neighboring countries. Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Youth Union come first through the north, particularly Hargeisa and spread their ideologies throughout the country. Later on the more radical Alitihadul Islam (The Union of Islam) and others followed.
The first and foremost objective of each and every one of these organizations was and still is to eliminate Christians and Christianity from among the Somali people. They claim that Somalis are 100% Muslim people, which is far from being true.
During president Said Barre’s rule, in the 1970s and 1980s they used their influence in the government, their financial strength and the public against the church. They influenced the government to ban the printing, importing, distributing or selling of Christian literature in the country. The government and its National Security Services (NSS) secret police threatened, arrested, tortured, and murdered Somali Christians. Literally, Freedom of religion was stated in the national constitution, but practically no one applied it.
Many Somali Christians lost their jobs and businesses; others to survive abandoned their faith or immigrated to the western world. Those lucky enough got jobs with western embassies and international organizations in Mogadishu.
4. The collapse of the state and the church
When president Said Barre‘s government was ousted from power in 1991 and national government of Somalia fall apart, Muslim fundamentalist organizations become stronger and more powerful to do whatever they wish in Somalia and even it’s neighboring countries.
Fundamentalist Organizations set up a committee of several sheikhs to search and identify all Somali Christians, whether they were in or out of Somalia. They also appointed a group of armed young men to execute all Somali Christians. Sheikh Suley, a well-known Somali clergy, led both the committee and the armed group. According to Islamic sharia, any adult who abandons Islam and converts to other faith is "murtad" and should be killed, that is legal and unquestionable.
Since January 1991 over a thousand Somali Christian adults were killed in Somalia and the neighboring countries of Yemen, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. Many more were wounded and either became refugee to other countries or denied their faith to save their lives. Hundreds of Somali believers left Somalia and became refugees and still many more believers remain underground in Somalia. The Muslim fundamentalist ambitions of eliminating the Somali church are far from being over. They followed those who took refuge to Kenya and the neighboring countries. Many are persecuted, beaten or charged with false accusations in Nairobi by the Muslim fundamentalists.
In May 2001, a Somali Christian man by the name Bashir was tranquillized by his relatives by force and abducted to Somalia through Wilson airport without the governments knowledge of his being abducted. Later we heard he was murdered in Burao, Somalia.
In February, 2003 when three Somali Christians went to Eldoret town and requested to participate the ongoing Somali peace conference and represent the Somali Christian community, the peace conference nearly collapsed. Most of the several hundreds of participants rejected the idea of Somali Christians participating the conference and representing Somali Christian community.
On 9th February 2003 the umbrella of the Somali Muslim religious groups, a powerful religious organ met in Mogadishu and issued a memorandum. They stated in their memorandum and press release which was broadcasted or published by several local and international radio stations, newspapers and websites several articles concerning Somali Christian believers. They also asked the participants of the peace conference not to accept any Somali who is claiming that he or she is Christian to participate the conference and sit with them. The articles were include:
1. Somali Christians abandoned Islam and must be killed;
2. Somali Christians can neither inherit nor inherited;
3. Their marriage to their spouses must be dissolved;
4. Somali Christians forfeited their Somali ness [citizenship];
5. Once they die, Somali Christians cannot be buried in Somali soil. (Baaruud 2003)
Fourteen sheikhs representing different major Somali clans signed this memorandum. Some of them are those who authorized and organized the campaign to eliminate Somali Christians from the horn of African region.
II. THE FACTORS AFFECTING
THE SUSTAINABILITY OF THE CHUCRCH
1. Hostile Islamic environment
Somalis are predominantly Muslim, who like any other Muslim people or country, are very hostile to any religion other than Islam. It is very difficult for a Muslim background believer to practice his faith among Muslims, if he or she survives at all amid the frequent persecutions.
According to the sharia (Islamic law), Muslims are not allowed to change their religion, even if they receive Christ as their Lord and savior, they have to remain Muslims according to the existing laws of the country. The sharia demands the death sentence of converts who reject the repeated call to return to Islam, this stringent requirement was not enforced in Somalia before the collapse of the country’s legal system. Therefore, Muslim fundamentalists took its implementation into their own hands, executing converts directly or indirectly.
In 1995 Sheikh Suley, one of most predominant radical Muslim fundamentalists in Somalia, said in one of his recorded sermons in Mogadishu: “We succeeded in identifying, capturing, and executing many of the infidels, who turned away, from the religion. Many of them run away, but still there is a great number of them hiding amidst us and, it is the duty of every Somali to report the kufar (unbelievers) to us.” According to information I received from several eyewitnesses, over two hundred Somali Bantu Christians were drawn and murdered in Jubba River at Muganbo, Jilib, and Kamsuma locations that same year.
What the fundamentalist sheikh preached was not his own particular conviction, but a common dogma and law among all believers of Islam. In his book, The Great Deception, Abd Al Masih wrote: “On his death bed Muhammad had demanded, according to a tradition of his teenage wife, Aisha, that no Jew or Christian should be allowed to remain in the sacred land of Islam.”(Abd Al Masih 95,151)
According to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, Allah ordered him to fight and kill those who do not believe in Allah and his prophet hood. Imam Muhammad bin Ismail Al Bukhari wrote in his sahih: “Narrated ibn Umar, Allah’s messenger said: ‘I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform all that, then they save their lives and property from me except for Islamic laws, and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah.’” (Bukhari n.d. 1:25)
The prophet of Islam was referring to his holy Qur’an chapter 9:5, which is translated by Abdullah Yussuf Ali as the following: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans1 wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them, for Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful.” (Ali 1934, 438) This is what the Somali Muslims believe and practice, to persecute and slay their Christian countrymen, who live among them.
Somalis are communal people, tightly knit together by the clan, which provides protection and support. Once a Somali converts the rest of the clan considers him as an outcast and segregates him. A convert cannot expect physical, legal, financial, etc. protection from his clan. “A convert cannot marry a Muslim Somali, can not be buried in Somalia or inherit or inherited.” (Baaruud 2003)
Because of earlier trauma, Somali Muslims consider Christianity as an enemy religion, and converts as enemy allies. Because of this conviction, Somali believers cannot do business or get employed among their own people. Somali Muslim fundamentalists murder, beat, threaten and create as many problems as they can for the converts and their families. Somali Muslims are too hostile to Christians and Christianity and, make life for the convert very difficult to bear. Omar Eby a Mennonite missionary who worked in Somalia in the 1950s wrote quoting Paul N. Kraybil, the editor of the Mennonite Missionary messenger: “In Somalia we will face a spiritual battle intensely more difficult than any mission situation in which we have ever found ourselves.” (Eby 2003,17)
2. Negligence by the missionaries
The Swedish Overseas Lutheran Mission planted the first Christian church in Somalia in the southern coastal town of Kismayo in 1890. The mission expanded to Jubba valley and the church enjoyed tremendous growth. By the time Mussolini expelled the Swedish mission from Somalia the church had hundreds of Somali members. Eby wrote, “That afternoon the Italian district commissioner showed Bert the former Swedish mission compound: an abandoned house, a collapsed school room, a grave yard used as a toilet. But the most heart wrenching –the four walls of a small church with no roof, its pointed bell-tower raising no cross. Upriver from Kismayo, along the Jubba, Bert found the remains of the Swedish mission stations at other villages, Ionte, Singuni, Mofi and Alexandra. He also found a group of brothers and sisters in the faith” (Ibid 20) When the Mennonites went to the southern Somalia in the early 1950s; they met small groups of Somali believers scattered along the Jubba valley from Kismayo to Jilib (Alexandra). When the Swedish Lutherans left Somalia, they left the church without a shepherd and they never come back to Somalia until that church perished forty-five years later.
The following factors concerning missions and missionaries affected the sustainability of the Christian Church in Somalia.
- The divisions and disagreements of missions and missionaries contributed to the already existing clan and individual interest base divisions of the Somali Christian community;
- Each and every mission or missionary wants to get and keep few Somalis as their trophy of mission success. This kind of mentality created competition among the missions and made the Somali believers’ opportunists who seek only the best place where they can get more material gains. The missions at last find themselves in a very difficult dilemma either to continue buying the Somali believers or abandoning their mission work among the Somalis which both end up in a harsh reality, i.e. total failure of their mission objectives;
- Because of being afraid of losing the Somali believer missionaries always fail to take disciplinary action against the bad behaviors of the Somali believers, this led the Somali believers not to give much attention to the spiritual and moral matters including church attendance, confession of sins, the Holy Communion, catechism and Bible classes, prayer, etc;
- Missionaries do not give much attention what I can call the foundation of a sustainable church, which are the women and the minors. Missions usually support single male adults, who are mostly interest minded;
- Most missions start their mission work among the Somalis without research, study and proper planning;
- Mission’s lack of consultation with the Somali believers. Some missionaries consider themselves as if they know the Somali people and culture better than the Somalis themselves; this leads to cultural conflicts;
- While missionaries are trying to avoid creating financial dependence, they completely neglect the suffering poor Somali believers.
3. Luck of trained local leaders/clergy
Since the beginning of the church in Somalia in the late 19th century, there were no formally trained Somali church leaders or clergy. The church always depended for leadership on foreign missionaries, who when expelled from the country by the authorities or when their term of service ended, left the church without a properly trained leader or with none at all. This was evident when the Swedish mission was expelled from the country in 1935 and, later on when President Mohamed Siad Barre’s socialist government expelled all the Christian missionaries from the country in 1975. Eby wrote: “Soon the last Mennonite mission teachers will need to leave Somalia; the Mogadishu fellowship needed a leader. After many weeks of prayer and discernment, they gathered to affirm the one whom they believe God had called to be their teacher and shepherd. Friday, July 18. 1975. “Upon this confession of faith and these promise which you have made before God and these witnesses, I here with charge you …to instruct, comfort, and encourage the believers… to be a faithful shepherd of the flock of God. Roy Brubaker the last ordained Mennonite missionary in Somalia quietly spoke those words; his hands laid on the head of kneeling Adam, a part-time lay teacher for the believers’ group in Mogadishu. Twenty were present, witnessing this passing of leadership responsibility from North American missionary to Somali. (Ibid 57)
The Mennonites were the only mission, who passed leadership responsibilities to Somali, and Adam Jimale Farah was a layman who had little training. When each and every mission or missionary left Somalia, they left their converts without a shepherd, to scatter for the waiting wolfs and lions.
4. Clannish and conflict among the believers
The Somali people in general, are divided into clans and sub-clans, which are the extended family of the person. Each and every Somali belongs to a clan and a sub-clan. The clan, which is his or her kinship, is more important for the Somali than any other thing. Ioan M. Lewis wrote: “With the absence of institutionalized hierarchal authority, Somali pastoral groups are not held together by attachment to chiefs, the principal of government which is so important in so many parts of Africa is here replaced by binding ties of patrilineal kinship. (Lewis 1980, 10)
When a Somali converts to Christianity, he is still a member of his clan. Somalis believe one can change his or her religion, but cannot change or abandon her or his clan. To deny ones clan is to deny ones Somali identity. “When asked what clan they belong to- the stock Somali inquiry to elicit someone’s identity, replied ‘the clan of the fathers’… thus apparently denying their Somali identity.” (Ibid 67)
Thus Somali Christians like their Muslim counterparts are divided into clans and sub-clans and kinships. This clannish mentality of some believers sometimes creates discrimination, persecution and conflict among the Somali Christians. This division of the believers is one of the obstacles that hinder the growth of the Church and contribute much to the factors affecting her sustainability.
5. The immigration of believers
Somalis are pastoralist nomads, who naturally wonder from place to place in search of water and grass for their livestock. When the rural population started to immigrate to the urban centers early in the twentieth century, they moved with their nomadic lifestyle. Somalis, everywhere they live, move from one urban center to another in search of employment and business opportunities. Today, there are an estimated one million Somalis scattered throughout the world outside the Horn of African region.
The Somali Christians, in addition to their nomadic community lifestyle, face religious persecutions including murder, abduction of family members, forced separation of married couple, forced conversion to Islam, financial and educational marginalization, constant physical and verbal violence and many other harsh modes of treatment. All these troubles combined forced the faithful Christians and their families to seek to emigrate from their homeland to wherever they can find refuge.
During the last decade, over fifteen hundred Somali Christians were resettled from refugee camps in Kenya to the United States and Canada alone. The immigration of the Somali Christians started a century ago and continues to date, and will continue.
Despite the murdering, persecution and suffering Somali believers face daily among their own people, Somalis are converting and the church is growing.
In Nairobi I met a small number of Good Samaritan Kenyans who prayed for and supported the Somali church. But it seems the world Christian family evaded its duty and responsibility. The duty and responsibility of caring for its own infants. Somali believers need the support, encouragement and protection of the greater world Christian family.
According to the Gospel of St. Mathew 28:19 the good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is for all nations and peoples. Somalis are lost people. They need the grace of God. They need freedom from their spiritual captivity. They need peace. The peace, which the prince of peace, Lord, Jesus Christ gave to us. The peace that comes from above. The peace that never fails.
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