CWN.org - Christians on the predominantly Muslim islands of Pemba and the Comoros archipelago are beaten, detained and banished for their faith, according to church leaders who travel regularly to the Indian Ocean isles off the east coast of Africa.
These violations of religious freedom, the church leaders said, threaten the survival of Christianity on Pemba and the Comoros, with fewer than 300 Christians in a combined population of 1.1 million people. Pemba, with about 300,000 people, is part of Tanzania, while the Union of the Comoros is a nation unto itself of about 800,000.
Leaving Islam for Christianity accounts for most of the harm done to Christians, and this year saw an increase in such abuse as already-strained relations between the two communities deteriorated after the conversion in August of Sheikh Hijah Mohammed, leader of a key mosque in Chake-Chake, capital of Pemba.
News of Mohammed's conversion spread, and zealous Muslims began hunting for him as leaving Islam warrants death under sharia. An Assemblies of God Church in Pemba swiftly moved him to a hideout in the village of Chuini, 20 kilometers from the airport.
Word of the hideout eventually leaked to Muslims, however, forcing the church to move Mohammed to an undisclosed destination. This time, church elders never revealed where they had taken him. Compass was not given access to him.
A Christian from the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar who recently visited the Comoros said those suspected to have converted from Islam to Christianity face travel restrictions and confiscation of travel documents. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he noted that security officers who had been monitoring the ministries of a 25-year-old Christian confiscated his passport at the airport in July.
The Christian deprived of his passport was still looking for a way to leave the country to pursue theological studies in Tanzania.
In the early part of this year, authorities expelled a missionary from the Comoros when they discovered he was conducting Friday prayer meetings.
"The police broke into the prayer meeting, ransacked the house and found the Bibles which we had hidden before arresting us," said a source who requested anonymity. "We were detained for three months."
Law student Musa Kim, who left Islam to receive Christ nine months ago, has suffered at the hands of his kin on the Comoros. Family members beat him with sticks and blows and even burned his clothes, he said.
Kind neighbors rescued him, and Christian friends rented him a house at a secret location while his wounds healed. On Oct. 15, however, Muslim islanders discovered his hideout and razed the house he was renting.
Asked if he reported the case to the police, Kim was emphatic.
"No - reporting these people will get you into more trouble."
Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf first settled in this region early in the 10th century, after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia.
Pemba and the Comoros are part of the Zanzibar archipelago, which united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964. This uneasy merger, with island Muslims seeing Christianity as the means by which mainland Tanzania would dominate them, has stoked tensions ever since.
A large Arab community in the Comoros, the world's largest producer of cloves, originally came from Oman. The population consists of Arabs and native Waswahili inhabitants.
The Comorian constitution provides for freedom of religion, though it is routinely violated. Islam is the legal religion for the Comoros people, and anyone found to be practicing a different religion faces persecution.
The Zanzibar Christian who spoke on condition of anonymity termed the Comoros a "horrifying environment for one to practice Christianity," adding that it was not long after his arrival to the main island that he realized he was being monitored. He cut short his trip early last month.
"I planned to take three different taxis to the airport" to evade authorities, he said. "But thank God on that day I met a Catholic priest who gave me a lift together with some Tanzanian soldiers to the airport."
The Christian left the island quickly even though he had been issued a professional visa for 45 days. In late October, a contact had warned him that Comoros authorities were looking for him as one of the island's "most wanted" persons.
In May 2006 four men in the Comoros were sentenced to prison for three months for involvement with Christianity. There has long been widespread societal discrimination against Christians, but this level of persecution had not been reported in the Comoros since the late 1990s.