East Africa’s Swahili Coast is one of the most exotic holiday destinations in the world but, for local Christians, who form the minority in this “paradise”, the surroundings can be rather hostile. Open Doors worker, Eglan* recently visited. 

A warm breeze whistling through the palm trees welcomed me to the Kenyan coast. It felt like I was at the gates of paradise. I got into one of several bobbing taxi boats lined up outside the airport to take travellers across a narrow channel to Lamu island, dipping my hand into the deep blue ocean as we sped along.

Every now and then an angry current tossed the boat about. The island’s greenish water with its white beaches and grass-thatched Swahili houses stared at us as we approached.

As I stepped off the boat, numerous narrow corridors invited me to venture in. So narrow was the one I took, I had to stand in a doorway to make way for a man and his two donkeys to pass. While I waited, a wall built of coral and shells caught my eye. One of many visual delights on this world heritage-listed island.

The heavy aroma of an exotic Swahili dish interrupted my reverie. A pair of cats looked up at me from a doorway, urging me on somehow to follow the mesmerising Taraab music to my abode to enjoy the feast awaiting.

By the time I have eaten night was approaching, and I ventured back to the water. The sun turned into a large orange ball just before it disappeared behind the horizon.

Suddenly, several muezzins shattered the silence to demand presence at evening prayer. The continuous singing made me realize that this mysterious place is paradise only for some.

This island falls within a stretch of coastland that Muslims dream of turning into the Sultanate it once was. Centuries ago Muslim traders fared these seas bringing slaves, spices, Arabic and Islam. The vision now is to establish a sharia state that starts in Somalia and reaches south as far as Sofala Province in Mozambique, and to make it devoid of any “infidel” – Christian influence. Until the day they can raise an official flag over their sultanate, many Muslims of this coastline live as if it has already happened.

Life is difficult for Christians living here and in other areas along the Swahili coast of Kenya and Tanzania. The Somali-Kenyan border is porous making it easy for extremists to cross to attack Christians. In 2014 a series of attacks in the region left 88 Christians dead.

Mourners in 2014 at a funeral after suspected Al-Shabaab attacks in Mpeketoni, Poroko, Kenya.

 

Destruction close to a police station after suspected Al-Shabaab attacks in 2014 in Mpeketoni, Poroko, Kenya.

 

While extreme violent and deadly attacks are a continued threat throughout the region, it is also the squeeze of persecution through the daily pressures that believers face, living as an unwanted minority, that can cause pain and difficulty. Challenges faced include:

 

  • One church lost its land after a group of Muslim youths planted trees across their plot the day before they were to lay foundations for a church building. When the pastor asked what was going on, he was assaulted. The matter is in court.
  • Church services are disrupted by young people throwing rocks (instigated by elders).
  • Churches struggle to get approval for open air outreach meetings.
  • A Christian couple had the body of their deceased two-month old child exhumed from a graveyard. Two years later their appeal for help remains unanswered. Although church leaders have pleaded for a solution, they have had no success.
  • Christian employees, unlike their Muslim counterparts, get no time off for church. “We only get leave at Easter,” lamented Juma*. One pastor explained, “We have lost influential choir members and other department heads because of work commitments.”
  • Playing gospel music in a home rented from a Muslim can result in eviction.
  • Believers from a Muslim background face the most difficulties. Some are fired from jobs for choosing their new faith.
  • At school, Christian students regularly miss out on  government bursaries. A Christian teacher, Manzu*, explained how life became difficult for Christians when a Christian headteacher was replaced by a Muslim. Christians were forced out of a cool room and into the extreme heat, outside, for their fellowship, and seven Christian teachers were transferred to other schools.“It is a strategy that Muslims use to domineer institutions and see to it that Christian culture vanishes,” Manzu concluded.
  • Mercy*, 24, is a believer from a Muslim background. When her boss found out about her conversion, he falsely accused her of stealing, and then cut her salary to one sixth of what it used to be.
  • Alan*, 30, works as a chauffeur and was attacked with a machete and left for dead for refusing to give a lift to a Muslim neighbour in his employer’s car (he was not allowed to give lifts). The matter is still in court. When his employer heard he did not accept a bribe to drop the case, he was fired.

 

As I spent time on the island, I was  struck by the contrasts: the vibrant culture along the Swahili coast offers travellers an exceptionally rich and diverse experience.

Yet believers are under constant pressure to convert to Islam and be rewarded with acceptance and economic inclusion. These believers probably won’t describe themselves as a vibrant expression of the Body of Christ but they are there – quietly shining a light for Christ among people who regard them as enemies.

Our family in Christ who live along the coast of East Africa request our partnership and support.

  • Pray for them to be able to withstand the pressures of being treated like second-class citizens.
  • Pray for wisdom and courage to live out their lives as testimonies for Christ as they interact with Muslim neighbours and authorities.
  • Pray for new believers who have been rejected by family for their faith to find a sense of belonging within Christian communities.
  • Pray for the work of Open Doors to glorify God and help strengthen the witness of the Church in East Africa.

*Pseudonym’s and representative images use to help protect identity.

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Open Doors’ support programs to the Church in these regions include:

  • Evangelism and MBB Discipleship,
  • Integrated Economic Empowerment,
  • Leadership and Management development
  • Trauma Healing
  • Children’s Ministry
  • Cross cultural ministry training

 

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