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‘They Cannot Burn Jesus Out of Me’: Mozambique Pastors Minister to Survivors of Violent Insurgency

Despite the risks in the region, Christians are flocking to camps and targeted villages to provide resources and spiritual care.
‘They Cannot Burn Jesus Out of Me’: Mozambique Pastors Minister to Survivors of Violent Insurgency
Image: Marco Longari / AFP via Getty Images
The insurgent group Ansar al-Sunna has been terrorizing villages across northern Mozambique for years, killing thousands and displacing more than three-quarters of a million people.

Back in April, when armed men began attacking his village in the middle of the night, a pastor of a local church in northern Mozambique woke his family to flee. He took his two older sons and his wife took their two younger sons. In the midst of chaos and confusion, shouting and shooting, they escaped in two different directions.

The pastor and his sons hid in the surrounding bush all night before returning to the village, near the town of Palma, to look for the rest of their family. The next morning, he found their hut caved in and the remains of his four-year-old son, who had been beheaded by the attackers. All he and his sons could do was dig a hole in the ground to bury the young boy’s body and weep together. To this day, his wife and second-youngest son are still missing.

This pastor shared his story with CT through English-speaking ministry partners in Mozambique. He asked that he and his village remain unnamed for security reasons, but his story is not unique as conflict escalates in the northern province of Cabo Delgado.

Countless innocent civilians are fleeing the area where insurgents have been burning entire villages to the ground and brutalizing their inhabitants—including beheading, recruiting, capturing, enslaving, and committing sexual crimes against them. The violence has killed thousands of people and displaced upward of 800,000, a number that is growing rapidly and may soon reach one million, United Nations officials warn.

“The north of Mozambique, especially Cabo Delgado province … is being affected by Islamic insurgents, who at some stage claim to be linked with Islamic State,” said Mauricio Magunhe, faith and development coordinator for World Vision Mozambique.

“For the Christians living in that area, it’s very important to have the word of God so that it can renew their faith and hope in such a time of turbulence. The word of God can be used in efforts for peacebuilding in that area, as well as in the country as a whole,” he said. “If we work together as Mozambican citizens and as leaders from different religions, it is possible to educate our people not to adapt that kind of situations that bring a lot of destruction and pain for our people.”

The atrocities of the past four years hearken to the ’80s and ’90s, a tumultuous period in which a series of sociopolitical conflicts shook the African continent, including the Rwandan genocide and Mozambique’s own 16-year civil war from 1977 to 1992. Over the last two and a half decades, however, Mozambique enjoyed relative peace and stability apart from suffering natural disasters in recent years, such as Cyclone Idai in 2019.

Christians make up more than half the population in the country as a whole but are less prevalent in the northern provinces where the insurgency has gained a foothold. Instead of leaving the area and prioritizing their own safety, many local pastors and national believers are staying in the province to serve among their fellow survivors.

In nearby villages and makeshift camps set up throughout the region, these faith leaders are partnering with a handful of ministries, missionaries, and Christian humanitarian organizations to distribute food, supplies, and farming kits, as well as pray with people, preach the gospel, and hand out thousands of solar-powered audio Bibles to all who ask. And in the midst of an unthinkable crisis, they report that thousands are coming to faith in Christ.

“When we first arrived, our arms were crossed—we were sad and angry,” said another pastor whose family is still missing. He also asked that CT not print his name out of fear of further attacks. “But because we serve, we’re strong. Because we serve, we’re happy. In a time of difficulty or in a time of ease, we will serve the Lord.”

Pastors minister in the Pemba region.
Image: Courtesy photo

Pastors minister in the Pemba region.

From within these camps and villages, pastor after pastor shared their testimonies. One quoted Psalm 23, saying as he and his family walked past dead bodies on either side of them, they found comfort in the line, “Even though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (ESV). Yet another pastor, who has lost everything, said, “They can burn our houses, they can burn our food—but they cannot burn Jesus out of me.”

Antonio Matimbe, a native of the country who has worked for World Vision Mozambique for over ten years, recently visited a camp for people displaced by the violence. He said that at first he thought everyone seemed to be doing fine. “But when I started to hear the stories, that’s when I had a real sense of the dimension of the disaster and the situation that people have been through in Cabo Delgado,” he told CT. “It was kind of eye-opening to the real things they have been through, especially when we talk about the children—they have witnessed things that they should not witness as children.”

Matimbe, who manages communications at World Vision Mozambique’s national office, still has vivid memories from the civil war when he lived in a rural village with his grandmother. As a child, he was awakened in the middle of the night, alerted to the approach of military men nearby—and recalls running in the dark to hide and sleep in the bush until morning.

But all of this is nothing, he says, to what the children in Cabo Delgado are facing. Kids as young as four will forever carry the memories of family members, neighbors, and friends killed in front of them, or of the physical or sexual violence they have experienced.

A particular emphasis in World Vision’s effort is to provide counseling in the camps, since the majority of survivors have endured unimaginable trauma. The organization is partnering with the religious council of Mozambique and working with local officials to train and equip camp workers to recognize and respond to trauma-related symptoms.

In these cases, Matimbe says, “Psychological support is as important as providing them with food and water, because these traumas—if they are not well managed, if the children cannot recover from that—we don’t know what kind of adults you can expect.”

Mozambique recently jumped to 45 on the World Watch List of nations with persecuted Christians—after at least 300 believers have been killed for their faith and 100 attacks on local churches, ministry bases and other Christian establishments such as medical missions clinics. These statistics were validated in the latest reporting period and gathered directly by survey teams from multiple sources on the ground.

“This isn’t one or two different attacks—this is a series of attacks, and it’s all around. ISIS is trying to get a foothold in this northern region of Mozambique,” says David Curry of Open Doors USA. “It’s complicated, of course, by all of the different political stuff… but the gist of it is that Christians are really in the danger zone because the Islamic State group there has an ideology which justifies these attacks.”

The insurgency in Mozambique is targeting not only believers but countless innocent civilians of all ages and religions. Despite the population being divided between Muslims and Christians, the country has enjoyed a long history of religious harmony due to the uniquely influential role of its faith leaders in society.

World Vision, an evangelical humanitarian organization that has established a strong presence in Mozambique since 1983, began facilitating interfaith gatherings a year ago to pray for peace and political stability. The latest event was held in person last month at Peace Square in the capital city of Maputo—a couple miles away from World Vision’s national headquarters—and was recorded live and broadcast online.

Among the high-profile figures in attendance at the event were the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Alberto Chissano, and retired Anglican bishop Dinis Sengulane.

The latter is a well-known national faith figure who made first contact with the Renamo rebel group back in 1989—an act that began peace negotiations and eventually led to the official treaty signed by both parties in 1992, thus ending communism, declaring religious freedom for all, and initiating twenty-some years of peace in the nation. These same leaders also played a role in stemming the return of targeted armed conflict in 2013 by the opposition party, Renamo toward the current party, Frelimo.

Today, the Christian Council of Mozambique—which includes Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders—are once again banding together on a national level to lead the country in a renewed fight for peace and political stability. Beyond holding prayer events throughout the region, many are also serving on the front lines of the conflict to minister among those fleeing and forcibly displaced.

These Christian leaders are partnering with other religious and government officials to set up “peace clubs” in the northern regions to “counter potential radicalisation of youth and promote dialogue and alternative pathways to protest,” according to Alex Vines, who heads up the Africa program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“What is unique about the interfaith relationships in Mozambique is we understand that in order for us together to grow as a nation, we need to collaborate with one another,” said World Relief’s Magunhe, who is also an ordained member of the Anglican clergy and the key facilitator behind these national prayer meetings.

“In some regions, like in the north, half of the population are Muslims. If that conflict grows, then that will become a very serious issue for our people… So I believe church leaders have an important role to play in the current situation.”

Image: Courtesy photo

However, experts warn that such efforts may be putting these religious leaders and faith groups in danger. Recent intelligence reports point to a growing security threat for high-profile figures engaged in faith-based ministries and nonprofits as well as foreigners and expats. And there are fears of a rising threat for hostage and ransom situations.

Last September, when two nuns were captured by the extremists, Catholic bishop Luis Fernando Lisboa of the diocese in Pemba, the city center nearest to the conflict, successfully negotiated their release. After Bishop Lisboa became more outspoken about the conflict in the following months, he was suddenly reassigned to Brazil in February—likely for security reasons—after serving in the Pemba region for almost 20 years.

“The risk is escalating. It’s not getting better for NGOs—and the insurgents know it,” said Jasmine Opperman, a private risk analyst who is based in neighboring South Africa and specializes in terrorism in the continent.

The fledgling insurgency launched its first attack on three police stations back in October 2017, and “in the first year, it looked like something small that could be crushed by the government,” said Angelo Pontes, a veteran leader in disaster response for World Vision Mozambique, as well as a native Mozambican. “But that wasn’t the case—because three years on, things have escalated and are probably very far from ending.”

The group appears to be well-funded, with more advanced training and weaponry, and its attack tactics seem to be increasing in both their strategy and sophistication. Their method of killing is primarily by beheading, and there are rumors of far worse forms of mutilation being used.

The groups often announce their presence by calling out the battle cry of Islamic extremism, “Allahu Akbar,” and there are reports of Muslims killed because they could not recite the Quran in Arabic. Starting in 2019, the global Islamic State announced its involvement in the insurrection in their propaganda, explicitly claiming credit for the attack in Palma, which attracted worldwide notice.

According to Vines, however, it is a misconception to say a firm connection exists between the two. In fact, he says it “was a surprise to many international observers, especially those in the diplomatic community,” when the US State Department designated ISIS-Mozambique a Foreign Terrorist Organization back in March.

Because while there is indeed a “small hard core of radicalized individuals, some of them foreign fighters (mostly from Tanzania)” leading the charge, Vines says most regional experts and analysts would agree that “the conflict in Cabo Delgado remains more a rejection of mainstream elite politics than a deeply radicalized religious one.”

Though a number of “churches and missions have also been targeted,” Vines says, the insurgency’s primary focus is on attacking “organs and facilities of the state,” since their chief grievances lie with Frelimo, the political party of the incumbent government. He says that “a core driver was a purist Muslim cult that regarded mainstream Islam as compromised” due to its connections with the government and its affiliation with outsiders and interreligious relationships—especially with Christians, who they call “Crusaders.”

“The anti-government sentiment is linked to religious extremism in Cabo Delgado—they do cross to a certain extent,” says Opperman. But as to the insurgency’s ultimate goal or plans, there is much speculation and very little that is known for certain.

Mozambique, which lies on the southeastern coast of Africa, between Tanzania and South Africa, is currently the eighth poorest country in the continent. The nation’s highest poverty rates are in the rural northern provinces—where the population has yet to reap any economic benefit from the natural resources being mined in their region, which are funnelling instead towards a wealthy elite in government and corporations.

Thus, apart from deploying targeted military strategy to weaken the insurgency’s core, Vines maintains that the violence can be curbed in other ways. He believes that the majority of the uprising’s local supporters, some of whom have been offered a daily sum to join the insurgency and their campaigns, “would peel away if there were alternatives offered”—which, in the long run, would include sustainable solutions for economic development to improve the overall livelihood of the region’s population.

The official name of Mozambique’s insurgency is Ansar al-Sunna, but it’s known locally as al-Shabab, meaning “the youth,” which is their most targeted demographic. In many villages, boys as young as 10 are made to enlist as child soldiers and girls as young as 12 are forced into marriage as child brides—and anyone who does not comply is killed. There are also reports of sexual assault incidents involving women as old as 60.

These bands of militants often arrive in the middle of the night, causing heightened panic in the darkness, and then issue a warning to those they spare that they will come back and kill anyone who tries to return to the village. Those who manage to escape will hide in the outlying bush until daylight, with only the clothes on their backs, until they begin their perilous journey.

Often walking for days with no food or water, survivors will first make their way to the homes of their extended families who live in Pemba and nearby villages. From there, a number of them will make their way to makeshift camps that have been set up throughout the province. Only then do some of them make it to camps for internally displaced people (IDP), which are officially run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Unlike its contemporary equivalents in other parts of Africa—such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo—the Ansar al-Sunna insurgency in Mozambique has garnered little media attention since it began.

“Not many people out there know what’s happening in Mozambique,” says Pontes, who has worked in crisis response for years. “On a daily basis, we see the news about issues in some corners of the world, and from time to time I keep asking, ‘Why aren’t they also bringing stories about Mozambique?’ The issue in Cabo Delgado is a serious one—why aren’t they doing something?”

Many Mozambicans do not have access to reliable reporting, and often the news outlets outside the country include more accurate information and updates than those within.

“Internally, the pro-government news outlets do not actually share much about what's happening in Cabo Delgado,” Pontes says. “Most of us actually end up learning a lot about what’s happening there through other news media groups,” as well as through social media posts and updates from analysts and regional experts.

After more than 15 years of field work, Pontes leads the Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs team at World Vision, which is partnering with UNICEF and a handful of other Christian humanitarian organizations to implement basic necessities in local villages and IDP camps—such as clean water, waste management, and safe sanitation. As new families are being resettled by the thousands every day, the number of public-health concerns are further compounded by COVID-19, which continues to ravage the country.

Pontes was on site back in November 2020 when one of the first official camps opened in the neighboring Nampula province. As of May, the Corrane camp has become home to nearly 65,000 people—around 85 percent of whom are women and children, according to World Vision. And although the needs of survivors seeking refuge in the camps have increased exponentially, donor support for World Vision and other nonprofit organizations has steadily decreased.

“Since 2020, it’s been challenging,” Pontes says. “But we keep trying and knocking on the doors.” Their current goal is to raise $5 million to meet the rising demands.

Pontes lived in the city as a child, but he can still remember praying for God to protect his parents when they left home to work in the rural provinces for days at a time. Now 46 and with two young children of his own, Pontes wishes they wouldn’t have to go through the same experience.

“It’s terrible that kids today need to hear about this. And sometimes it’s something so bad happening that everyone is talking about it—and even if you want to protect them, they end up hearing about these things,” he says.

“But my kids are small,” Pontes said, “and I just hope and pray that this will end one day, and they won’t have to hear about it—or they will end up hearing something written in books or the sort, not in news that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Another major Christian NGO in northern Mozambique, whose name is withheld for security reasons, has been working closest to the conflict. They are caring for and ministering to the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who have yet to reach the safety of camps. Most of them are lodging in Pemba and surrounding villages, often with extended family and friends and many are hosted in homes of believers.

This organization is facilitating widespread, prayer-led trauma counseling—a ministry conducted by national believers who are fluent in four of the region’s primary dialects. And in the past few months, the organization reports that thousands of people are not only coming to faith in Christ but also receiving deep spiritual and emotional healing.

“It is a tremendous privilege to be partnering in Mozambique for such a time as this,” said one of the organization’s founders, whose name is also withheld. “The body of Christ in northern Mozambique is not discouraged. No matter how dark things get, we’re called to shine in the midst of it.

“Love wins, and it always triumphs over hate,” the leader said. “And everybody—absolutely everybody—is saying yes to Jesus.”

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