The Challenge of Evangelizing Mali

A Christian FM Broadcast in Timbuktu!

As I write these lines (end of January 2013), the news has just reached me that the legendary town of Timbuktu, in northern Mali, has been freed by French troops after ten months of violent occupation by Jihadist groups (in particular AQIM, Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb). No doubt, the news of the liberation of Timbuktu would have particularly gladdened the heart of my friend and brother in Christ pastor Abdoulaye C. Less than a week ago, Abdoulaye was telling me over the phone (from Bamako, Mali’s capital) that amidst bombings of Al Qaeda camps outside of Timbuktu by the French Rafale planes, Jihadists had sought refuge in the building where his Christian FM radio, Radio Tahanint, had been operating for the past seven years. How ironic that they would seek refuge in the very building which they vandalized shortly after taking over Timbuktu early last year¼

Radio Tahanint, supported by Reformed Faith and Life and also broadcasting its radio programs, had brought about a real change in the mentalities of the local population, predominantly Muslim. Timbuktu is the cultural center of Islam in Africa, hosting a famous library rich in ancient manuscripts (about 20,000, some of them going back to the thirteenth century). Little by little, instead of relying on what their Muslim marabouts (African imams) have said about Christianity for more than a thousand years, locals had started phoning Radio Tahanint to find out directly from the staff what Christian beliefs actually are, why Christians speak of Jesus as “the Son of God,” and many topics related to the Bible. But all this came to an end in March 2012, while Abdoulaye and I were attending a seminar on radio management in Abidjan, the huge metropolis of neighboring Ivory Coast. He was due to stay a little longer there after the end of the seminar, among other reasons to purchase some additional equipment for the studio of Radio Tahanint (thanks to a generous gift of a Canadian church approached to that effect by Reformed Faith and Life).

But then the news struck: Jihadists had conquered Timbuktu and one of the first things they did was to vandalize the studio, knowing that it was a center of propagation of the Christian faith. The staff of the radio (eighteen people in total) had felt the looming danger, though, and managed to hide in good time all the equipment in a secure place so that, except for the studio itself (which will have to be rebuilt), no loss or injury was suffered. The whole staff could also get out of town in time. The very day Jihadists stormed in, Abdoulaye’s wife and their seven-year-old daughter (who at that stage needed urgent medical treatment) escaped from another side of the town and jumped into a bush taxi to join some family living a few hundred miles south of Timbuktu.

Eventually, Abdoulaye and his family managed to reunite around Bamako, the capital city of Mali, then the theater of a military coup that chased the former president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure. He was viewed by some army officers as one of the main culprits for the situation that had brought the north of the country to such a miserable situation. Many former government officials are actually accused of having been involved in all kinds of traffics perpetrated by Jihadist groups (drugs, weapons, perhaps even Western hostages). All this, while the Malian army was deprived of logistic means to fight effectively the rebellion pouring into the North. Meanwhile, neighboring countries—Algeria and Mauritania—turned a blind eye on rebels taking their territory as bases for their training camps. Other Arab countries (Qatar and Saudi Arabia), though on the surface allied to Western countries, also equipped them as much as they could. And as if all this was not enough, a Western coalition made of the U.S., Britain, and France decided to actively support the overthrow of Colonel Kadhafi’s regime, which, whether one likes it or not, was the only one able to counter effectively the rise of Islamists in this region. After Kadhafi’s demise, a host of sophisticated weapons entered the North of Mali with those Malian soldiers who had fought alongside Libya’s former ruler.

Wondering About the Roots of Islam

Nine months of Sharia law heavily imposed on the populations of the North (with public amputations of thieves’ hands, whipping of those who would be caught smoking or listening to Western music, even stoning of adulterous couples) have made more than one inhabitant wonder about the roots of Islam. What should be the correct interpretation of the Quran? Why did Mali become the target of such fanatics? Most Malians are traditional Muslims, but even in their worst dreams they never imagined that such a scenario could become reality in their beloved country. During my second visit to Mali, last year in November, I had a chat with a restaurant owner who expressed his indignation at the caricature of Islam presented by these Jihadists from the North. Was Muhammad not, so he insisted, the real father of human rights? After all, he was the one who made religious tolerance a virtue, paving an enlightened way for generations to come, wasn’t he? Little did this man know about Muhammad’s treatment of the Jewish community in Medina after they refused to acknowledge him as an inspired prophet and sneered at his claim of being Allah’s very special messenger.

Christian leaders in Mali witness an increase in genuine interest from their Muslim “cousins” (as they call them) about Isa (Jesus) and Injil (the Gospel, as it is called in the Quran). It is very likely that this tendency will grow further. Thousands of refugees from the North—including countless Tuaregs who have strictly nothing to do with any independence movement in the North—have been pouring into the capital Bamako and have now to make sense of their uprooted existence. There can be little doubt that now, more than ever, is the great challenge for the evangelization of Mali. Muslim clerics are at odds with each other about what happened. (During the past months, some tried to negotiate with the Jihadists and were even ready to find a compromise about the application of the sharia law to the whole country.) How will the tiny minority of Christians there tackle the great task, with all the necessary sensitivity towards their Muslim “cousins,” and with adequate tools?

Fifty-Six Christian Radio Stations in Mali

The role of about fifty-six Christian FM radio stations spread mostly in the South of the country, is vital in this respect. Which is the reason why, since 2011, the ministry of Reformed Faith and Life has made a priority of getting involved not only by sending radio programs, under the form of recorded CDs, to these stations, but also by helping them at the level of logistics and advice regarding the proper management of radio stations and studios (which includes staff, programs, finances, and equipment). There is indeed little use in producing programs from South Africa and sending them all over the place, when the basic facilities to broadcast them are deficient, despite the best goodwill and the limited means available locally. The November trip had precisely in view to assess local situations and needs and to compile a proper report to be sent to larger Christian organizations dealing with broadcasting the Gospel in Africa. Actually, these should take over, using all relevant information put together in this report. RFL did offer a training seminar in Bamako, though, with the assistance of a South African missionary couple very experienced in both technical and management issues. Some funds were also allocated to purchase much-needed new material, to replace faulty equipment, or repair damaged antennas. As long as Reformed Faith and life will have the means to do so, such sporadic actions geared towards emergency situations will continue. A special fund for Christian FM radios in Mali has been set up for this specific purpose.

The production of adequate literature must also receive urgent attention. In particular, a well presented pamphlet in French and in Bambara (one of the most commonly spoken languages in Mali), destined to answer typical questions which Muslims have regarding the Bible and the Christian faith is much needed. Training adequately existing pastors is also an urgent task: they must not only feed their flocks properly but also reach out with a solid knowledge of God’s revelation in Scripture at hand. Many missionaries have left Mali (some upon the insistence of their government). It must also be said that some missions have been purely interested in uplifting local communities socially, rather than proclaiming the full Gospel and the accompanying social and cultural developments which such proclamation should always produce (“¼teaching them to observe everything I commanded you.” Matt. 28:20). Needless to say, this rather secular approach has not yielded the expected fruit: locals merely attend the meetings organized by the missions when they know for sure that some other material good will be distributed.

A Two-Edged Sword

As is well known, Hebrews 4:12 speaks of the Word as being sharper than a two-edged sword. But how is this sword different from those handled by Jihadists to chop heads or hands? Western skeptics and secular humanists choose not to see any difference between the two. They claim that any religious message is merely a factor of alienation and a trigger of fanatic intolerance. Those who have read Hebrews 4:11–16 should know, however, that the Word which is a two-edged sword is no one else than the great High Priest who was Himself crucified for the sake of mankind. Through this unique Mediator, the true and eternal Son of God, access to the Father has really been obtained, and fellowship with Him through the Spirit has become a reality. It is this reality which the disarrayed population of Mali desperately needs to hear.

            Rev. Eric Kayayan
French Radio Broadcaster: Reformed Faith and Life
Pretoria, South Africa
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