TANZANIA: Third church in four months burnt down in northwest Tanzania

Another church building in northwest Tanzania was burnt to the ground on 2 May in a suspected arson attack.

No group has claimed responsibility for the fire that destroyed the Roman Catholic church (pictured) in Nyarwele, in the Kagera region that borders Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. It is the third church building in four months to be burnt down, after the Tanzania Assemblies of God and Pentecostal Assemblies of God churches, said Kagera Regional Police Commander Augustine Ollomi. He added that seven suspects are helping police with investigations following the burning down of other churches in the region last September – six within one week (see below).

Paulina Nkuba witnessed the latest fire and said she raised the alarm with neighbours. “I live near the church,” she said. “While I was sleeping, [my grandson], studying at the Kimiza Primary School, told me that the church was on fire. I went to the church and started to put water on the fire, but I could not manage to put it out.”

Another witness, Jackie Mrina, said that by the time he reached the church building the fire was impossible to put out. Church chairman Sabas Kafuba said that among the burnt items were church documents, chairs, tables, the psaltery and generators.

Fortunatus Bijura, a priest at the church, said the destruction of the building will not stop the congregation meeting: “Those who think that destroying our church means we won’t pray, they are wrong… We have a big tree near the church and will continue meeting there for prayers.”

Local police have asked the community to work together to discover how the fire happened. Almachius Vicent Rweyongeza, Roman Catholic Bishop of the area, appealed for calm and requested that locals co-operate with police to catch those responsible.

Six church buildings torched in one week
Six church buildings in northwest Tanzania were burned down during the last week of September 2015. All were in the Bukoba region, on the shores of Lake Victoria.

The first three were torched on 23 September: Living Waters International church; Buyekera Pentecostal Assemblies of God church (pictured, after the fire); and Evangelical Assemblies of God Tanzania church.

Three more were torched during the night of 26 September: the Evangelical Lutheran church; Kitundu Roman Catholic church; and Katoro Pentecostal Assemblies of God church.

The people woke up on 27th September to find their sanctuaries burnt down,” an anonymous source told World Watch Monitor. “The scenarios are the same; unknown people broke in, piled things onto the altar, poured petrol over it and set it alight. They fled before anyone could respond and so remain unknown.”

The first fire occurred at the Living Waters church. At around 4am local time, the pastor, Rev Vedasto Athanas, was woken by a phone call from a neighbour alerting him to the fire. He rushed to the scene, but was too late to prevent the damage to hundreds of chairs, tables, benches and the pulpit.

The second fire occurred shortly afterwards, at Buyekera Pentecostal church, which is led by Rev Emmanuel Narsis. About an hour later, the third church, in the nearby Kibeta neighbourhood, was torched. Its pastor, Rev Kabonaki, received a phone call just before 6am and rushed to the church, but was too late to prevent the flames from destroying the church and everything inside.

Commenting after these attacks, the secretary of the local pastors’ organisation, the Bukoba Pastors’ Fellowship, said that since 2013 there had been many arson attacks in the Kagera area. The secretary, who wished to be known only by her first name, Annette, told World Watch Monitor: “Since 2013 we have had over 13 churches torched here in Kagera and no one has been held accountable. This is not acceptable. And these are not the only ones. They have now started adding fuel [paraffin or petrol] to ensure maximum damage. We are very upset and concerned as this is a trend that can no longer be ignored.”

Christianity in Tanzania
Approximately 54% of Tanzania’s population of 50 million people are Christians, and 31% are Muslims. Christians and Muslims live in peace in most regions, but recent years have seen the rise of Islamism, leading to attacks on Christians and church buildings. The majority of Islamist attacks on Christians take place in the semi-autonomous Zanzibar Archipelago, where the Uamsho organisation is fighting for autonomy for Zanzibar and the imposition of Sharia law.

(Main source: World Watch Monitor. Also: Church in Chains Global Guide, Open Doors)