WHERE is the hardest place in the world to be a Christian citizen? North Korea, perhaps? Saudi Arabia? Try Somalia. There are thought to be no more than a thousand Christians in a resident population of 8m people, with perhaps a few thousand more in the diaspora. The Islamist Shabab militia, which controls most of southern Somalia, is dedicated to hunting them down.
Christian men attend mosques on Fridays, so as not to arouse suspicion. Bibles are kept hidden. There are no public meetings, let alone a church. Catholic churches and cemeteries have been destroyed. The last nuns in the smashed capital, Mogadishu, were chased out in 2007. The year before, an elderly nun working in a hospital there was murdered. The only Christian believers left are local Somalis.
Catching and killing them is useful propaganda for the Shabab, not least for indoctrinating its young fighters and suicide-bombers in the belief that America, Britain, Italy, the Vatican, along with Ethiopia and Kenya, are all “crusaders” trying to convert Somalis to Christianity. The UN lurks nefariously behind. Israel, of course, is also doing its bit to undermine Islam.
The shaky transitional government led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, whose writ runs weakly across the territory the Shabab does not yet run, is unlikely to speak up for any of its citizens caught with a Bible. Though professing moderation, he promotes a version of sharia law whereby every citizen of Somalia is born a Muslim and anyone who converts to another religion is guilty of apostasy, which is punishable by death.
Every month several Somalis are killed for being Christian. Sometimes that is just a label that the jihadists stick on people they suspect of working for Ethiopian intelligence.
But many are simple believers. According to Somali sources and Christian groups monitoring Somalia from abroad, at least 13 members of underground churches have been killed in the past few months. Most were Mennonites, evangelised by missionaries on the Juba river in southern Somalia. They include a 46-year-old woman shot dead near the town of Jilib after a Swahili-language Bible was found in her shack; a 69-year-old man killed near a port south of Mogadishu after Shabab fighters found 25 Somali Bibles in a bag he was carrying; and two boys, aged 11 and 12, who were beheaded by the Shabab after their father refused to divulge information about an underground church. Hundreds of Somalis may have been killed for being Christian since the Shabab arose in 2005.
Such atrocities—and reports that the Koran has been read over the victims even at the point of their beheading—are upsetting evangelical Christians in America. Mr Ahmed’s government sorely needs money to shore itself up. But if he fails even to hint that Christians should be tolerated, he may find America’s Congress increasingly loathe to help bail him out.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited, London (October 22, 2009).