WASHINGTON — Islamist terrorist groups are unleashing a new wave of violence and persecution to build a “transnational caliphate” stretching from west Africa to the Pacific, according to a new report on religious persecution.
The report, released earlier this month by the international Catholic pastoral aid organization Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), found that as a result of increased jihadist activity, persecution of Christians along the equator has skyrocketed in recent years.
ACN’s report, “Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians Oppressed for their Faith, 2020-2022,” found that the equatorial regions of Africa and the Pacific have been particularly affected. Christians and other minority religions in these regions face violent persecution and in many cases the choice to “convert or die” at the hands of radical Islamist groups, some of which are affiliated with ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
According to ACN, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and millions displaced as 14 African nations have been subjected to jihadist campaigns, with the situation in 12 of these nations being particularly dire. “With the growing Islamist radicalization, Christians tend increasingly to become a specific target for the terrorists,” ACN states.
The African region has been prone to sporadic and disorganized violence in the past, yet this new rise in jihadism is different, according to ACN. The radical Islamist groups not only are extending a jihad across the continent but are increasingly organizing and coordinating their efforts. ACN has found that “the threat from militant Islamist groups in Africa is not monolithic but comprises a constantly shifting mix of roughly two dozen groups actively operating — and increasingly cooperating — in 14 countries.”
Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Mozambique have all been subjected to radical Islamist terror campaigns intent on forcing their extreme version of Islam on the local populations.
With millions fleeing the impacted regions, grievous human rights violations abound. In many cases, men and boys are kidnapped and forced to join the extremists’ ranks or face beheadings. Meanwhile, women and children fleeing the violence have themselves been subjected to rape and forced servitude.
ACN’s report posits that the international community’s response to this crisis in Africa has been thus far insufficient to render proper aid to the suffering population. In some nations, such as Burkina Faso, hundreds of thousands have been displaced yet “more than 60 percent of the territory was not accessible to humanitarian aid workers” as of the end of 2020, according to ACN.
ACN’s report states that “the multinational military missions deployed in West Africa have not been successful.” This is further evidenced in that the “Islamic State has declared six so-called ‘provinces of the caliphate’ in Africa.”
In the Pacific, governments have either failed to quell or been complicit in the rise of jihadist movements within their nations, according to ACN. In its 2021 report on religious freedom in the world, ACN states that the threat to Christians and non-Muslims from groups identifying as part of the transcontinental caliphate, though on a smaller scale than in Africa, is very real and deadly.
The report also details incidents in which local authorities in Indonesia have cooperated with jihadist forces to close down Christian churches and places of worship for other minority religions. In 2017, an Indonesian radical Islamic group known as the Front for the Defense of Islam spearheaded a movement to oust the Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, and even imprison him for two years on “blasphemy” charges.
The Maldives, a small nation south of India, is “in the grip of both state-imposed Islamic orthodoxy and non-state Islamist extremism,” according to ACN. Violent jihadism has been on the rise in the Maldives to which the government has in many ways cooperated, banning the expression of any other religion than Sunni Islam.
Even in the majority Catholic nation of the Philippines, ACN reports that jihadist groups including Abu Sayyaf (the so-called East Asia Province of the Islamic State) have unleashed a new wave of religiously motivated violence on non-Muslims. Since its founding, Abu Sayyaf has been responsible for bombings, kidnappings, and executions. Abu Sayyaf’s violence appears to have increased in recent years with new attacks on a hospital, a Catholic church, and a Filipino military camp. In 2019, the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Catholic church during Sunday mass which killed 21 of the faithful and injured many more.
ACN releases a biennial report, based on first-hand testimony from local sources, on the state of religious freedom across the globe. Visit the organization's website to download the complete report.