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 and family members from SIM, HCJB World Radio, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), and Mission to the World, among others.
Welch leaves behind Frequence Vie, the only Protestant radio station in the country. Staff are leery about continuing without the support of field-based missionaries. "We poured so much time and effort and money into the radio, we don't want to see it come to a halt," Welch said.
Muslims form one of the three largest religious groups in the ethnically diverse nation of 17.3 million people. There are also substantial blocs of Christians and traditional religionists. With a per-person Gross Domestic Product of US$1,400, poverty is endemic in the agriculture-dominated economy.
CMA has been active planting churches in Ivory Coast since 1930. Currently they have more than 300,000 members. CMA also runs the West African CMA seminary. CMA field director Dave Ingram says the mission will try to help African faculty keep the school's doors open.
The doors are now shut at the International Christian Academy in Bouaké. Students and staff were evacuated for the second time since 2002. Missionaries say they don't know if the mission school will reopen.
Many believe mission work is at a crossroads, with the Ivorian church forced to shoulder the burden. "I think the face of missions in Ivory Coast has changed forever," Ingram said. "I have talked to other missionaries and other mission leaders, and most people are saying they are not anticipating getting back into Ivory Coast anytime soon, maybe never again."
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Coverage elsewhere of the violence in Ivory Coast includes:
Ivory Coast Violence Breaks French Connection | Angry mobs rampage through areas and businesses identified with former colonial ruler (Washington Post, November 13, 2004)
French flee Ivory Coast violence | Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo appealed for an end to anti-French violence that erupted after France destroyed most of Ivory Coast's small air force in retaliation for killing nine French peacekeepers. (The Age, Australia, November 9, 2004)
Yahoo's Full Coverage has more news from the country.
Earlier coverage of the Ivory Coast violence includes:
Missionaries Flee Violence in Ivory Coast | Muslim rebel attacks force school closures. (Dec. 12, 2002)
Post-election Violence Rocks the Ivory Coast | Religious tensions compound chaotic presidential and parliamentary elections. (Jan. 05, 2001)
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