Mali (MNN) — A pepper of gunfire continues to play back and forth between Islamic rebels in Mali’s north and the Mali army in the south.
On Wednesday, Mali’s military attacked the rebel Islamic group called Ansar Dine with heavy weapons along the north-south dividing line, according to Mali officials. Rebels boasted of capturing soldiers in the attack.
Earlier on Tuesday, Islamist fighters reportedly pushed toward Mopti–the last government-controlled city in the north–and the army held them off with “warning shots.”
Peace talks were scheduled between the Mali government and Ansar Dine group members in the neighboring country of Burkina Faso on Thursday.
The potential for rebel forces in the northern territory–an area the size of France–to push south is troubling. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said to BBC News, “Obviously we are very concerned about the situation, and the development of essentially an entire terrorist region is of grave concern to everybody in the international community.”
While most of the world is fixated on radical Islamic presence in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, Mali has kept a low profile. Muslim extremists didn’t rise up until March 2012 in a coup that led to their north takeover. The Taureg insurgents wanted to make their own country in the north.
Paul Estabrooks with Open Doors USA says, “The first thing they did was a kind of religious ethnic cleansing. They began to do house-to-house searches. They literally warned Christians that if they didn’t get out of this new country in the north part of Mali, they would kill them–and they weren’t joking. Many Christians were killed; others were injured severely.”
The Open Doors World Watch List tracks the top 50 countries that carry out persecution of Christians and restrict religious freedom. When the 2013 World Watch List was released January 8, the results for Mali were shocking.
According to Estabrooks, “Mali was not even on the World Watch List last year, and because of all the challenges there, [Mali] has suddenly jumped to 7th place out of 50 countries. It is a significant factor.”
Members of the group Ansar Dine are applying Islamic law in their north region, even punishing moderate Muslims. There have been reports of public amputations, executions, and whippings.
Several people fled to neighboring countries and are living in refugee camps.
“It’s been a fairly quiet country, so [Christians] haven’t had a strong history of persecution,” says Estabrooks. “So when it comes suddenly like it has in Mali, it’s a real challenge for believers because they haven’t really prepared for what’s going on. The fear factor is an extremely difficult thing for them to deal with.”
Estabrooks says, “It’s a highly speculative situation at the moment. I mean we just don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it possible that things could be returned to some kind of normalcy? Or if not, will the north just literally overrun the south which is what they want to do? We’re in a wait-and-see kind of situation.”
Please pray for Christians to stand strong under persecution. Pray also for their safety. Pray that they would be ambassadors for Christ and bring hope to others living in fear.