The poverty- and drought-stricken Sahel region spanning northern Africa is becoming a breeding ground for radical Islamic groups intent on persecuting Christians, according to a study conducted by World Watch Research.
The Sahel, a horizontal swath spanning parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, has become attractive to extremist groups that offer financial security to attract impoverished adherents facing uncertainties in the semi-arid land, reported World Watch Research, a division of the Open Doors International advocacy organization for persecuted Christians.
Boko Haram, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Ansar Dine and groups loyal to them are growing in the 10-country region with funding from oil-rich Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, the Aug. 25 report said, and will continue to spread across the African continent unless defeated.
“The instability and fear these groups create as well as the ideology they propagate are in considerable conflict with such human rights as freedom of religion,” the report said. “Even if these groups do not succeed in violently imposing Sharia law at a national level and establishing an Islamic caliphate, they contribute to the overall radicalization of the population and the spread of an extremist and intolerant version of Islam.”
While the Sahel is historically and predominantly Muslim, more puritanical and militant versions of Islam are now thriving in the region, in particular attracting young men. The groups attack not only Christians but moderate Muslims.
“This is a critical time for the future of Christianity in the region,” according to the report. “If the instability gets out of control and the militant groups have their way, Christians will be killed and exiled out of the entire region. A similar fate would await not just Christians but also Muslims who do not subscribe to the ideology of the militant Islamic groups.”
The report pointed to Mali and Niger as prime examples of breeding grounds for Islamic jihad in the region, with both countries facing high illiteracy and poverty.
“Niger has also been beset by ethnic rebellion and civil war just like Mali and its considerable mineral resources have also fueled conflict,” the report stated. “Just like the rest of the Sahel region, Niger has been affected by a rise in militancy and this development has had a very adverse effect on the freedom of religion of Christians in the country.”
The report cited a wave of arson attacks conducted by Islamic militants in January 2015 that destroyed 70 churches, a number of Christian orphanages, schools and homes.
Countries in the region should join hands militarily to defeat the groups, while also addressing socio-economic ills, the report recommended. “It is only when these underlying realities are improved that Christians and non-Christians will be able to enjoy security and freedom in the region.”
The full report is at theanalytical.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/The-Sahel-Rising-Islamic-militancy-and-the-persecution-of-Christians-in-the-region-2016.pdf.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)