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Violence and chaos have erupted for the third time in two years in Ivory Coast, the cocoa capital of the world and longtime haven in strife-torn West Africa. Last November's exodus of expatriates included missionaries. They left behind Ivorian Christians who must now sustain their ministries amid civil war with little Western help. The Ivorians don't know if they are ready for the challenge.

Ivory Coast's conflict pits President Laurent Gbagbo's largely Christian government forces, which control most of the south, against the Muslim-dominated New Forces rebels, which occupy a large swath of the north. Most of the disputes are over land and run along ethnic lines, missionaries say. French troops have been stationed in the former French colony to protect expatriates from violence.

On November 4, an errant government air strike killed French troops in the central town of Bouaké. The French retaliated by wiping out the country's tiny air force. Bands of Gbagbo supporters, in turn, took to the streets, attacking French nationals, and destroying and looting their schools and businesses. White missionaries who escaped the violence took flight with one-way tickets.

Many missionaries held on during two previous periods of unrest-in October 2002 and February 2003. But the third exodus included nearly all of the remaining hundreds of Protestant missionaries.

"[Missionaries] have said this: 'I'm willing to die for the gospel, but I'm not willing to die because someone on the street thinks I'm French. I'm not willing to die over a mistake,'" said Tim Welch, Serving in Missions (SIM) country director who has been in the country since 1986. On November 16, he left Ivory Coast on a chartered flight to Dakar, Senegal, with 61 other missionaries ...

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In the Magazine

February 2005

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