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Clergy in North Africa fearful as PM talks of military response

25 January 2013


Attack: damage caused by the terrorist assault on the In Amenas gas plant

Attack: damage caused by the terrorist assault on the In Amenas gas plant

POLICE dogs checking for explosives at St George's Anglican Church, Tunis, on Sunday, were "a healthy reminder that we live in volatile times", the Area Bishop for North Africa, Dr Bill Musk, said on Tuesday. He spoke in the wake of an attack by Islamist terrorists in Algeria in which 37 hostages were killed, and a warning by the Prime Minister that North African states had become "a magnet for jihadists".

Addressing Parliament on Monday, Mr Cameron said that the "murderous violence" perpetrated by the terrorists at the remote Tigantourine gas complex in the Saharan desert last week required a "strong security response". Britain was engaged in a "generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith".

Clergy had mixed views on the implications of Mr Cameron's speech for Christians.

Dr Musk said that, in "strong Islamic contexts", Christians living as minorities "always run the risk of being perceived as fifth columnists, agents of the West - politically as well as religiously". For some Muslims, the "religious motivation and political motivation by Western powers in their 'war on terror' or definition of an 'axis of evil' is seen as much as a religious phenomenon as a security issue." Some Christians in North Africa were discovering, in the wake of the Arab Spring, that "instead of the previous state-security-sponsored persecution, they are now being targeted by Islamist groups of different varieties".

Dr Musk suggested that "a really serious, risky engagement by Western powers to address the major, historic issue of perceived injustice in the region - purposeful collusion in the setting up of a Zionist and expansive state of Israel at the expense of Palestinian communities - would go a long way towards the pulling out of the rug from under the feet of those with a more extreme Islamic, politico-religious agenda."

Mr Cameron's comments, including his reference to a "strong security response", drew criticism from the Revd Nadim Nassar, the director of the Awareness Foundation, which promotes greater understanding among religions.

"Wherever an incident happens or a regime is shaken, the first thing we talk about is military intervention," he said. "Where do we draw the line? . . . I ask Mr Cameron a question: Why did they allow the opposition to use jihadists in Syria? . . . Why is Aleppo full of al-Qaeda fighters under a black flag?. . . What are you doing about jihadists and Islamic fanaticism in this country?" Dialogue, not military action, was the way forward.

Mr Nassar said that Muslim leaders had "much more to do . . . to stop religious fanatacism. We can help them with our support, build bridges with them, but after all there must be a moderate force within Islam to say 'enough is enough for abusing religion'. . . At the moment we are still in the area of pleasantries and making compliments to each other . . . but we have to deal with the problem on a deeper level."

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) welcomed Mr Cameron's "recognition of the issue of terrorism in the Maghreb at large". Events in Nigeria suggested that Christians and moderate Muslims would be "more endangered by a lack of action that allows space for these groups to embed themselves and enforce their repressive policies." CSW had received reports from Mali of "appalling mistreatment of the general population of northern towns".

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, asked the Leader of the House of Lords to "express his support for the vast majority of Muslims . . . who express their own bitter opposition to violence". This violence was "sometimes associated, on the part of terrorist organisations, with allegations of western and Christian aggression." Interfaith activity, he said, was "crucial".

On Tuesday, giving the Thought for the Day on Radio 4, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, spoke of the families of Paul Morgan and Garry Barlow, murdered in the Tigantourine siege. Their grief would be compounded by the fact that, in a "violation of faith", the terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar had called the attack a "blessed operation", he said. "If God is violated by such misrepresentation, then it's a sign of how he's violated day by day by the slaughter of innocents."

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