Somalia is considered to be the world’s most corrupt country. It was formed in 1960, after independence from Britain and Italy. It suffered years of drought, famine, fighting and anarchy, and was without a formal government for over 20 years after President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. His overthrow led to civil war, as guerrilla groups and militias based on traditional ethnic and clan loyalties fought for power. Many of the several hundred Somali Christians fled the country. Drought and warfare have left huge numbers of people dependent on food aid.
Several attempts to form new governments since 1991 failed due to the rise of Islamic insurgent groups, of which al-Shabaab is the most dangerous. In 2000 a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was set up, but Islamist groups took control of some areas. In 2006 the Islamist group Union of Islamic Courts took control of some areas, including the capital, Mogadishu. Islamists and warlords fought with each other and with the TFG, but eventually Ethiopian and TFG forces expelled the militants from the capital. More than 10,000 civilians were killed and approximately one million people displaced in the insurgency.
In 2012 a new parliament was sworn in and Hassan Sheikh Mohammad, an academic and civil activist with little political experience, was chosen as president. On 8 February 2017, former prime minister Mohamed Abdullah Farmajo was elected by MPs and senators to succeed him. Nevertheless, al-Shabaab still retains control of much of south and central Somalia.
Al-Shabaab, which has declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, is the main Islamist organisation operating in Somalia and is estimated to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. Its name means “The Youth” in Arabic. Al-Shabaab is recognised as a terrorist organisation by many Western countries and rules according to a strict interpretation of Islamic laws known as Wahhabism (the same form of Islamic rule imposed in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan). This form of Islam is so extreme that even Sufi Muslims have been driven underground. All laws come from Sharia law and punishments include flogging, hand amputation and execution by stoning. Al-Shabaab aims to eradicate Christianity from Somalia, and since seizing control of central and southern Somalia in 2008, it has murdered dozens of Christians, targeting converts from Islam.
In recent years, al-Shabaab has spread to northeast Kenya. Kenyan troops entered Somalia in 2011 in pursuit of al-Shabaab, which the Kenyan government accused of kidnappings and murders in Kenya. Al-Shabaab leaders warned of reprisals. Many members of al-Shabaab who have been driven out of Somalia have taken refuge in northeast Kenya where they have carried out many attacks, including the attack on Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in 2013.
Al-Shabaab has overtaken Boko Haram as Africa’s deadliest militant group, according to figures from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The data, compiled by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, showed that al-Shabaab was responsible for 4,281 casualties in 2016, while Boko Haram was responsible for 3,499.
Christians in Somalia
Because of the security situation, very little information emerges about the church in Somalia. All church buildings were destroyed in 1991, the church was driven underground and many Christians fled the country. Today, there are only a few hundred Christians left, almost all of whom are converts from Islam. They must hide their faith for fear that their neighbours will betray them to al-Shabaab. Islamic leaders and government officials publicly reinforce the message that there is no room for Christians in Somalia, and converts from a Muslim background are likely to be killed on the spot when they are discovered, often by beheading. The Open Doors World Watch List 2018 reports that at least 23 suspected converts were killed in 2017.
Attacks have also been carried out on workers from Western aid agencies that al-Shabaab perceives to be Christian. Most have since withdrawn from Somalia.
Even in the few government-controlled areas, it is considered socially unacceptable to be a Christian. In the semi-autonomous regions in the north, Somaliland and Puntland, which enjoy relative stability, it is difficult to be a Christian – several Christians have been imprisoned in Somaliland.
(Sources: Barnabas Fund, BBC News, International Christian Concern, Mission Network News, Open Doors World Watch List, Operation World and Voice of the Martyrs Canada)