Somalia's Tiny Christian Community Reportedly Under Fire

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:14pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Christian persecution in Islamic Somalia is on the rise, and humanitarian aid workers from the West are also under attack by Muslim radicals, according to a Christian human rights organization.

The UK-based Barnabas Fund is hoping to draw international attention to an unreported situation in the Horn of African country, which has been without a functioning administration for more than a decade.

A regional observer here said crimes against Christians and Westerners would likely lead to further isolation of Somalia, and also accelerate the growth of Islamic fundamentalism there.

About 99.5 percent of the Somalia population is Muslim. The small Christian minority comprises ethnic Bantus as well as humanitarian workers and expatriates.

The recent wave of violence began early last October, when two armed men killed an elderly Italian nun, Dr. Annalena Tonneli, in front of a hospital in Borama. Tonneli had been involved in humanitarian work in Somalia for 30 years.

Later that month, expatriates Richard and Enid Eyeington, were shot dead by several gunmen in their home inside a school compound.

The Eyeingtons, a British couple in their 60s, had been working for SOS Children's villages in Somaliland.

A Kenyan national working for a Seventh Day Adventist mission southwest Somalia, was murdered last month by Islamist radicals.

Campaigners believe these victims may have been targeted for their faith.

Early last year an extremist Islamist group in Mogadishu called Kulanka Culimada issued a statement saying all Somali Christians were apostates from Islam and should be killed.

The Barnabas Fund, which works among Christians in Islamic nations, said the threats were reportedly prompted by the Christian decision to send delegates to peace talks, which are currently being held in neighboring Kenya.

It said extremists were trying to prevent representatives of the Christian community from participating in the efforts to bring an end to decades of war and unrest.

At a session of the peace talks, where Somali Christian representatives called for freedom of religion and assembly, movement and political representation, they were shouted down by Muslim delegates, Barnabas Fund said.

The Muslims insisted Somalia had no Christians needing representation at the negotiating table, and declared Islam to be the country's official religion.

Several religious figures in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, told there seemed little hope that the issue of Christian persecution would be addressed soon.

They said evangelism efforts were not going ahead in Somalia because of the volatile security situation.

One Catholic priest, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the persecution issue was "the greatest challenge" facing Christians in countries neighboring Somalia.

"It's a problem very close to our hearts, but action is yet to be taken," he said.

Somali Bantus are a minority Christian group whose physical, cultural and linguistic characteristics distinguish them from the Cushitic majority.

They have long been considered as second-class citizens in Somali society, exploited as laborers, and excluded from education, land ownership and political opportunities and representation.

Many are in refugee camps in Kenya, and a significant number has migrated to the United States, to avoid further persecution in their homeland.

Earlier this year, Somalia delegates participating in the peace talks agreed to a charter providing for freedom of worship but also recognizing Islam as the official religion.

According to the Barnabas Fund, Somali Muslims regard Christianity as "a foreign religion of their historic enemies in Ethiopia and of their former colonial masters, the Italians and the British."

"Most Somalis take it for granted that a true Somali is a Muslim and converts to Christianity must be traitors," it said in a statement.

The State Department's recently released report on international religious freedom described the Christian minority in Somalia as "small" and "extremely low profile".

It also reported that the number of Somalis adhering to "strains of conservative Islam" was growing, as was the number of Islamic schools funded by "religiously conservative sources."

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