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24 February 2006

Zanzibar: Trouble (ISLAM) in Paradise

CWNews.com Radical Islam threatens to spoil this African island paradise. But the tiny Christian community is meeting the challenge

A few years ago, the world's top Islamic leaders, from around the world, gathered in Nigeria to strategize on how to turn Africa into the first Islamic continent — one goal was to eradicate all non-Muslim faiths.

Today, 50 miles off the East Coast of Africa, on the island of Zanzibar, a small group of Christians find themselves caught in the middle of this radical campaign.

At first glance, Zanzibar is a picture of paradise. The tropical weather, palm-fringed white sand beaches, and spectacular views, leave visitors feeling they've journeyed to the very edge of the earth.

But this vision of an island paradise is only half the story. In recent years, often hidden to outsiders, another side to Zanzibar has emerged: the face of radical Islam.

Islam's roots along Africa's East Coast go back more than a thousand years.

Intelligence officials believe that this stretch of land, from Sudan to this island off the coast of Tanzania, is now fertile ground for Islamic fundamentalist militants.

Zanzibar's shift towards radical Islam is led in part by Sheikh Azzani Khalid Hamdan.

He heads-up a group that wants to turn Zanzibar into what Afghanistan used to look like; the kind of island where Sharia law—which includes punishments like amputation, stoning and beheading—would be the law of the land.

Sheikh Hamdan said, "Sharia law is the basis of all law. It allows us to render judgment based on the Koran against those who don't follow the laws of Allah."

More than 90 percent of Zanzibar's population practices the Islamic faith. The remaining mix is a combination of Christian and Hindu. But Hamdan is not satisfied; he wants everyone to convert to Islam.

Hamdan said, "It is our duty to spread Islam and to especially try to convince the Christians to change their faith.”

The sheikh added, “A man has the right to choose his religion, but once he is a Muslim then he has lost that right. If he changes, under the laws of Sharia, he should be put to death.”

While not all Muslims on the island share his radical ideology, a growing number are attracted to the allure of fanatical Islam.

Life for Zanzibar's tiny Christian minority has become increasingly difficult, as a segment of this island's Muslim population pushes for a stricter, more radical interpretation of Islamic law."

The Zanzibari constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But recent converts to Christianity, in particular, feel the constitution cannot protect them.

Juma is a Zanzibari Christian convert. He said, "The Muslims are teaching people to hate Christians, that if you behead a Christian you will go to heaven. After I became a Christian, the Muslims excommunicated me."

Meanwhile, other Christians say they face constant threats—for example just walking to church on Sunday mornings.

Vanessa is also a Zanzibari Christian. She said, "When I go to church, Muslim men along the way hurl abuses at me. They call me an infidel. They call me a prostitute because I do not cover my face like other Muslim women do. Even the Muslim friends I had/have told me that this island belongs to them and that Christians are not welcome."

The hostility has gone far beyond insults and threats. In recent years, several churches have been attacked and burned down.

Rodney Lobow pastors a small church on the Island. Pastor Lobow said, "The people are made to believe that Christians should not worship in Zanzibar because Zanzibar is Muslim."

Lobow and others here worry what's happening in Zanzibar is just part of a bigger agenda by radical Muslims to turn Africa into the first Islamic continent.

Despite these tensions, the tiny evangelical church in Zanzibar is growing.

Dickson Kaganga has witnessed this, first hand, as pastor of one of the fastest growing churches on the island.

Kaganga pastors an Assemblies of God church. He said, "There is a big Revival, all over the island, coming to the church today."

Fueled in part, he says, by miracles.

Pastor Kangaga told us, "Most of the miracles I've been seeing here are people being set free from demonic powers. I've seen people come here with deaf ears. And when you pray, you realize that there are demons that are oppressing them. So when we pray, they are being set free!"

Susie Salom is another Zanzibari Christian, and one of the many who experienced God's healing power after years of battling disease. Susie rejoiced, "After two years of suffering from constant malaria attacks, God has healed me!"

Apparently, the healings are creating a stir on the Island, so that even Muslims are being drawn into the church services.

Pastor Kaganga said, "The Muslims come to the service and I have seen God healing them and setting them free."

According to Kaganga, it's not only the miracle service that's bringing crowds, but also the sound of praise. He said, "Some are attracted by the music, the kind of music we are playing, and by that way they listen to the message and they get saved!"

But as the churches on the island grow, so does the hostility.

Sheikh Hamdan said, "The biggest threat to our Islamic faith today is the influence of Christianity and Western culture."

Yet, in the face of persecution, Christians in Zanzibar say they'll continue to spread the message of Christ.

Lobow explained, "We still come together and worship, we still encourage one another, and we still preach love."

Pastor Kaganga added, “There is big Revival all over the island. We make the church a place where everybody can come. They are attracted now because they have seen that church is not a place where you go and nothing happens. They see changes happen, they come depressed, they meet Jesus and He sets them free!"

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