News 07 Mar 2024

Mozambique: Communities and churches attacked as insurgency intensifies in Cabo Delgado

Missionaries, priests, and religious sisters have been forced to flee remote towns and villages to Pemba and other large cities, which are overwhelmed with displaced people.

According to information provided to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) by missionaries on the ground, several new and simultaneous attacks by armed insurgents continue to shake the province of Cabo Delgado in the north of Mozambique. The activities of Islamist insurgent groups have intensified in the region, creating an extremely complicated situation and an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.

The insurgency in northern Mozambique began in 2017 but has seen an increase in attacks since the beginning of 2024. In the last few days alone, there have been several new raids on towns and villages, resulting in casualties and kidnappings.

On 9 February, terrorists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State attacked three communities in the Mazeze area, 100 kilometers south of Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado. "Churches were burned, as were the homes of the population," says a local missionary, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. The attacks, coupled with rumors of further terrorist movement in neighboring locations, led to the displacement of hundreds of people. Many walked long distances through the bush to find refuge in Pemba or the nearest city of Chiúre, causing overcrowding.

A female missionary, also requesting anonymity, reported that terrorists have destroyed houses and churches in several villages and are now "spread throughout the southern and central districts" of Cabo Delgado, though "the final goal of the movements or attacks is not clear" yet. "The situation," she explained, "is very, very complicated."

"Yes, many missionaries have also been displaced," confirms a local priest to ACN. "The priest who was in one of the communities has moved to Pemba, the center of the diocese, along with the nearby residing religious sisters. Other missionaries are following suit, both to protect themselves and the population," he added. Indeed, leaving is sometimes a means to protect the people, as often if the priests or sisters remain in the villages, people feel safe and remain with them, potentially exposing them to attacks.

Bolder Methods

Initially, the insurgents primarily targeted military or government structures, as well as villages and civilian communities, without discrimination between Muslims, who are a majority in this region of Mozambique, and Christians. However, in recent years, there have been reports of attacks on specifically Christian targets and communities, including cases where jihadists separated Christians from Muslims and executed the former.

"The village attacked in the Chiúre region had been targeted around two years ago, but the religious issue is not solely against Catholics," said the priest speaking to ACN. "They have not limited their attacks to villages with Christian churches. As always, they attack absolutely everything, including churches and mosques, but they especially target the population and their homes."

In addition to the increase in attacks, the terrorists also appear to be growing bolder in their methods. In a recent attack on the town of Mucojo in January, rather than destroying houses and fleeing into the bush, the jihadists remained for at least two days, despite the nearby presence of Mozambique's armed forces and other allied countries attempting to stem the violence. Just over a week later, on 31 January, terrorists ambushed a military convoy, resulting in the deaths of two Mozambican soldiers.

The insurgency in Mozambique has already claimed at least five thousand lives, leading to the displacement of over one million people, though these numbers are outdated, and the current figures are likely significantly higher.

The Catholic Church is deeply involved in supporting the displaced people in northern Mozambique and in seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict, criticizing both the terrorists and the government's heavy-handed response.

Mozambique, particularly the Cabo Delgado region, is a priority country for ACN in Africa. The international charity has supported numerous projects, including pastoral assistance and psychosocial support for terrorism victims, as well as providing materials for constructing community centers and acquiring vehicles for missionaries working with resettlement centers that accommodate families fleeing violence.

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