PICTURE EDITION 43: THE CHURCH IN SOMALIA: TINY, PERSECUTED, BUT GROWING

History

Somalia is a nation of around 15 million people that occupies the Horn of Africa. It is an ancient land, with rock paintings being some of the oldest in the world. Its earliest civilisations are intricately connected to those of Egypt and Ethiopia as evidenced by the Wargarde Wall and many conical pyramidical structures belong to the ancient Land of Punt. In that era the Land of Punt enjoyed trading relationships with the Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Indians and Romans. Frankincense and Myrrh were prized exports and it was the Somalis who first domesticated a local wild animal, the camel. Being just outside the orbit of the Romans, Somalis were able to control the lucrative cinnamon trade from India and amass great wealth around the time of Christ.

Somalia eventually came under the control of the Arab Empire very early on and slowly adopted Islam, with various sultanates vying for control of the region for the next thousand years. In the late 19th century European powers began the Scramble for Africa, which inspired the Dervish leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan to rally support from across the Horn of Africa and begin one of the longest colonial resistance wars ever recorded. In several of his poems and speeches he emphasized that the British have destroyed our religion and made our children their children and that the Christian Ethiopians in league with the British Christians were bent upon plundering the political and religious freedom of the Somali nation. Thus began the modern Somalian hatred for all things Christian. During this period Italy controlled the southern half of Somalia and the British controlled the north. During the 1930’s Italy attacked both Ethiopia and British Somaliland. In 1941 both Somalia and Ethiopia were retaken by the British in a little known theatre of World War II. Independence was achieved in 1960.

Today

After independence Cold War rivalries saw Somalia quickly disintegrate into wars with Ethiopia, then clan warfare, then civil war and brutal dictatorships, with 14 failed governments in 14 years. Since 2000 the Al Shabab Islamists have filled some of the power vacuum in the south, where fighting between them and the official government has become endemic around the capital of Mogadishu and any Western intervention is seen as another invasion of the Christians.

Against this depressing trend, Somaliland, the ex-British controlled region in the northwest, and Puntland on the Horn of Africa, have set up their own independent national governments and become a model of peace and good governance compared to the ex-Italian colony around Mogadishu to the south. The popular image of a Somalian failed state portrayed in the media only applies to the southern third of the country and half the population. Puntland has very low rates of poverty compared to the rest of the country while both the breakaway states are functioning democracies!

Geographically the country is largely flat and hot. Mountains in the north and two Ethiopian highland rivers in the south sustain the only agriculture. The Somali people are clan-based Sunni Muslims, and about 70% still follow a nomadic pastoralism, one of the highest percentages in the world and making it very difficult for traditional Christian missions methods to penetrate the culture. Intriguingly it Somalia right next to Arabia but only around 2% of Somalis are Arabs.

Somalia is Africa’s most failed state along with Sierra Leone. The average income is 0.5% of the USA and the narcotic leaf called qat drains the energy and morale of the nation. Over 2 million people are internally displaced and UN humanitarian workers are routinely targeted by Al Shabab who control large sections of the south and dish out a harsh form of Sharia law. Somalia has also become a byword for smugglers and pirates. Most women still suffer female mutilation and the country has the lowest health per capita budget of any nation on earth. Need I go on!

True Christianity

Bear with me for a moment while I reconstruct Somalia’s religious history. Both modern Western historians and influential Somali scholars have tried to delete the history of Christianity in Somalia, and this has bred the myth that Christianity is a foreign and hostile religion. Somali people are therefore are deeply antagonistic toward Christianity.

Christianity DID NOT come via British colonial missionaries. It arrived 1,800 years earlier with traders not long after the day of Pentecost and thrived alongside the many Jewish locals. Written records, archaeological remains and the use of symbols such as the cross on graves, contract notes, camel brands and other places point to a once deeply embedded Christian culture. There are several written, Arab sources from as late as the 10th century that still described a port city in present-day northwest Somalia, Zeila, then known then as Seylac, as a Christian city whose king received tribute from the small Muslim minority! A letter from the Catholic missionary, Francis Xavier, to Jesuit headquarters dated from September 1542, describes a Christian population on the nearby island of Socotra who claim to be converts of St. Thomas. In 1854 the first European explorer to visit Somalia described ruins of what the local Warsangeli clan claimed to be a church in what is now Sanaag Region of eastern Somaliland. In addition, many of the all-important clan genealogies of the Somalis do not become Islamised until the 15th Century and there are at least four Somali clans whose origin is Jewish. Many people also have Biblical names that are not used by any other Muslims.

Sadly, rivalry with Christian Orthodoxy in nearby Ethiopia over hundreds of years gradually forced the Somalis deeper into Islam and by the time of the European colonists little remained of what was once a largely Orthodox Christian region before the arrival of Islam.

By 1913 there were virtually no Christians in the Somali territories, with only about 100–200 followers coming from the schools and orphanages of the few Catholic missions in the British Somaliland protectorate. There were also no known Catholic missions in Italian Somaliland during the same period. In the 1970s, during the reign of Somalia’s then Marxist government, church-run schools were closed and missionaries sent home. In December 2013, the government even released a directive prohibiting the celebration of Christian festivities in the country. This is hostile territory for any Somali thinking of following Jesus. The lawlessness of the southern part of Somalia just adds to the fear barrier.

Miraculously, there are still some 26,000 Orthodox Christians living in Somalia; remnants of the ancient church. However there are only around 4,000 Somalis known to be evangelical Christians. Public confession of Christ is to invite retribution. Little is known of secret believers, but they are sure to be there as many Somalis are now using the internet to investigate the empty pages of their pre-Islamic history. In addition, large numbers of the  4 million strong Somali diaspora have become Christians. Operation World says an infant Somali church is emerging from the chaos and those in power admit Somalia is no longer 100% Muslim.

Prayer Points

Somalia needs our prayers!

Pray for the northern regions as there are almost no known Christians

Pray that the cruel Al Shabab rulers will drive many away from Islam

Pray for the infant church, it faces many dangers

Pray for the distribution of the Somali Bible

Pray for Christian radio beamed in from Ethiopia to reach the hidden believers

Pray for divine encounters

Pray for boldness and spirit led evangelism, healings and miracles

Pray for those in power to encounter the power of Jesus

Pray for internet evangelists to reach their own people anonymously

 

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