Saturday, June 7, 2008
By Tom OsanjoSpecial to ASSIST News Service
NAIROBI, KENYA (ANS) -- A while back, a group made up of acquaintances ransacked Abdi Razak's (not real name) house in a Nairobi suburb destroyed household property and beat up his wife and children, breaking the arm of his then 11 year old son in the process.
The 44 year old father of three's crime? He had decided to abandon the Islamic faith and embrace Christianity. And it is the lot of many of the Somalis who have become Christians as hostile family and friends subject them to intense persecution.
During our interview at a church compound in the Eastleigh Suburb of Nairobi, Abdi and his colleague Hassan (not real name) share tales of harassment that has followed them from their motherland of Somalia into the safe haven they ran to in Kenya.
Kenya, long considered a refuge for many from the war torn Horn of Africa and Great Lakes Region bore the brunt of refugees from Somalia when that country collapsed. The refugees find it easy to adapt because of shared kinship with Kenyan Somalis who occupy a whole province in the north eastern part of the country.
However, they count their troubles minor compared to the other converts who are still in Somalia. There discrimination, public humiliation and even death is the lot of those who choose to become Christians at the expense of the widely accepted Islam.
"From the time the government of Somalia collapsed in 1991 up to this year, we know of at least 34 people who have been killed because of their faith. The figures could be much higher because we are only talking about those known to us," Hassan says.
He cites the latest incident in April when two Britons of Somali extraction were killed by Somali militants in a school he was running in the war torn country. According to news wire reports, the 70-year-old man and 32-year-old woman were killed alongside two Kenyan teachers in the town of Belet Weyne, near the Ethiopian border. The bodies of the four victims, who are said to have been shot in the head, were discovered at the Hakab Private English School in the town. A resident in Belet Weyne claimed the attackers were from the group Al Shabab.
Al Shabab is an armed militant Islamist group that the US put on its list of foreign terrorist organizations in February, for what Washington says is links to al Qaeda. It is leading an insurgency against the Somali interim government and its Ethiopian military allies in the capital Mogadishu.
The press reports quoted Abdul-qadir Anshur Ali, nephew of the dead British man and a teacher at the same school saying: "(My uncle) came to the region to help its people learn something and now he is dead for no reason," said His uncle was married to a British woman and had two sons in Birmingham, he said.
Abdi and Hassan concur with the sentiments saying that despite the good work that the deceased was engaged in, his days were numbered because he was a Christian and the locals believed that the school was a fertile recruitment drive for new converts.
In 1991, the dictatorship of Siad Barre fell and Somalia has been a free fall ever since with warlords partitioning huge swathes of land for themselves where they run the show collecting illegal taxes, enforcing security and generally ordering the killings of rival militia.
Several attempts have been made, backed by the goodwill of the international community, to have some semblance of order prevail but to no avail. In 2000, Abdiqasim Salad Hassan was selected to lead the Transitional National Government (TNG). Four years later Abdullahi Yusuf was elected president.
But this did not go down well with all Somalis and in May 2006 the hitherto unknown Islamic Courts Union (ICU) started a serious fight with the other warlords, the TNG as well as their Ethiopian backers in a jihad aimed at introducing Sharia Law in Somalia. However, the superior military prowess of the Ethiopians carried the day and the ICU was vanquished.
Although chased out of town, the ICU still has some sympathizers and these are the people who have taken to harassing Christians. "After a meeting in Mogadishu in 2004, a section of radical sheikhs declared that they would hunt down converts even to other countries where they had fled. He reminded the supporters of their religious duty of killing those who abandoned Islam," Abdi says.
Pastor Simeon Mbevi of the Mavuno (Harvest) Church in Nairobi is one of the Kenyan church leaders who work closely with the Somali Christians and he believes that Christians all over the world should pray that TNG remains in power in that country because under it Christians are a bit better off.
"Whatever your political affiliation in Somalia, please let us pray that TNG stays in power because if the ICU prevails the situation will be worse for the few believers there," he recently told a prayer meeting in Nairobi. He has been to Somalia more than once to pray for that country.
The two refugees Abdi and Hassan agree stressing that because of the fear of attacks and threat to lives, it was not easy to know the exact number of believers in Somalia. "Most people practice their faith underground and you cannot talk much because you never know who will report you where and some even continue attending Friday prayers in the mosques so as not to raise suspicion," Hassan says.
Being in Kenya has eased things somewhat because here they are able to meet with fellow Somali Christians for worship and fellowship. Right now there are three venues open to them including the offices of a mission organization. The two estimate the total number of Somali believers from their country at about 30 while the figures for Kenyan Somalis could be higher.
Hassan says that the rule of law in Kenya has acted as a safety net to some extent although intense non physical harassment continues to be the order of the day. Cold stares in the streets, abuses hurled their way and at times being denied social inclusion in activities are the price they have to pay for their faith.
"My children cannot play with other Somali children because we are considered infidels. Many are the times when my wife's relatives have come to forcibly take her away but she has held on. Back at home I was never included in inheriting from my late father while my mother considers me dead," Abdi says.
Pastor Alex Njukia is an old Somalia hand in his secular work with an international development agency and he gives the context of the consequences of being ostracized by clan members.
"The clan plays a critical role in the lives of Somalis because whenever you have an issue to solve you run to the clan. They are in charge of weddings, funerals, raising money for hospital and almost any other matter. To be cast out by the clan means you are as good as dead and this is particularly true when you are a refugee in another country," he says.
Both Hassan and Abdi have resigned to the reality that they will live in foreign lands for the rest of their lives because going back to Somalia even if the security situation improved, would be a death sentence.
Abdi, a trained caterer in Somali gourmet, is forced to live on hand outs from well wishers because no self respecting Somali hotel owner would hire a 'non-believer' to cook for the guests. This way of life, he says, is very unpredictable because he has four mouths to feed.
Hassan also relies more on remittances from relatives living in the West but to supplement his income he has a part time job as a Somali language tutor for missionaries and others interested in it.
They can't hold formal jobs because as refugees the Kenyan government cannot give them work permits and although they are not stating it, their lot would improve greatly if they could get asylum or citizenship in a more developed country.
"I have lost my family, my inheritance and my identity with my people. But I have gained one of the most valuable things in this life and the life to come, that is the Lord Jesus Christ," Abdi declares.
Tom Osanjo is a writer with the Information Services Section of UN-HABITAT in Nairobi, Kenya.