Monday, August 6, 2018

RLPB 467. Comoros: Playing the Religion Card

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 467 | Wed 08 Aug 2018

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by Elizabeth Kendal

click on map to enlarge
Comoros is a union of three islands -- Grand Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli -- strategically located on the northern edge of the Mozambique Channel. Sunni Islam arrived in the 12th Century, courtesy of Arab merchants, after which the islands remained largely unreached by Christianity until the 1970s. According to the US Dept of State's International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, the population of Comoros is '98 percent Sunni Muslim. Roman Catholics, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Protestants together make up less than 2 percent of the population. Non-Muslims are mainly foreign residents and are concentrated in the country's capital, Moroni, and the capital of Anjouan, Mutsamudu. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims mostly live in Anjouan.' Operation World (2010) puts the Christian population at 0.93 percent. Whilst most Christians are Réunionese, Malagasy and French, Comorians are coming to faith and the Church is quietly growing.

In a referendum held on 30 July (boycotted by the opposition), Comoros citizens voted to amend the constitution so as to end federalism, end the five-yearly rotation of the presidency (paving the way for Azali to contest the next election) and extend the presidency from one to two five-year terms. With a population of a mere 808,000 (July 2017 estimate), this political reform may well be sensible, even if it is motivated (mostly) by President Azali Assoumani's determination to hold on to power. To undermine or even eliminate his main rival -- Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, a native of Anjouan who was president from 2006 to 2011 -- Azali is playing the religion card, a tactic known to inflame religious sensitivities, increase persecution and risk bloodshed.

welcoming and colourfully adorned . . .
photo: Diane Selkirk (BBC travel)
Along with the constitutional amendments to federalism and the presidency, the constitution will now enshrine 'Sunni Islam' as the state religion and framework for all law and practice. Not much has changed -- at least for Christians -- for Islam has been enshrined in the constitution as the state religion since 2001, and in 2013 President Ikililou Dhoinine (a native of Mohéli) issued a decree mandating that Sunni Islam -- specifically the Shafi'i school of Islamic doctrine -- be the 'official religious reference'.  By elevating Sunni Islam to the constitution, President Azali has ensured that religion will be an issue at, and leading into, the next presidential election (now expected in 2019). The reason for this is Azali is a Sunni with close ties to Saudi Arabia, but his main rival Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, though also a Sunni, studied in the Shia holy city of Qom, Iran, earning him the nickname 'the Ayatollah of the Comoros'. When he was president, Sambi opened the door to Iranian influence in Comoros to a degree that rattled the Sunni religious establishment and the region's Sunni Arab regimes.

It is highly likely that Azali plans to exploit Sambi's affection for and close ties to Iran to paint him as a compromised and unsuitable candidate, especially in the light of the new constitutional amendment. As has happened in the past, Sambi will doubtless be accused of being a secret Shia who is engaging in taqiyyah (strategic deception); a president who would open the floodgates for 'Shi'itization', despite the fact that under Rouhani, Iran today has little interest in the global south.

In line with the global trends of recent decades, Comoros Muslims have 'radicalised' as fundamentalist (Wahhabi) Islam has gained ground courtesy of Saudi Arabia. While being a Christian in Comoros has always been exceedingly difficult -- with Sharia (Islamic) law enforced, apostasy prohibited and all non-Muslim religious profession and practice banned from the public sphere -- many fear the situation is about to get worse. A source in Comoros told World Watch Monitor that Christians are growing increasingly nervous as belligerent rhetoric escalates and the Wahhabist hatred of Shi'ites and Christians being propagated in mosques and madrassas threatens to erupt into open hostility.


* pour out his Holy Spirit on all Christians in Comoros -- expatriates and local people (virtually all of whom would be converts from Islam) -- that they might have divine wisdom, to be 'wise as serpents and innocent as doves', especially if the situation around them deteriorates (from Matthew 10:16-42).

* shield all Christians in Comoros from violence and even from the debate (which is essentially a Sunni-Shia issue and a political issue to which Christians are essentially irrelevant). May the Lord sustain, preserve and continue to build his Church in Comoros.

'Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings' (Psalm 17:8 ESV).

'... a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law' (from Isaiah 42:1-4 ESV).

The kingdom of God is like 'a grain of mustard seed . . .' Mark 4:30-32


The population of Comoros -- a union of three islands on the northern edge of the Mozambique Channel -- is 98 percent Sunni Muslim and less than one percent Christian. Determined to retain power, President Azali Assoumani held a referendum in which Comoros voted to end the rotating presidency, meaning he can contest the next election. To undermine his main rival, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, Azali also had Sunni Islam enshrined in the constitution as the state religion. He did this because Sambi, though a Sunni, maintains close ties with Shi'ite Iran. Azali has thus paved the way to wield Sunni religious intolerance for his political gain. Christians in Comoros are anxious, aware that escalating Sunni intolerance will  threaten both Shi'ites and Christians. Please pray for the Church in Comoros.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).