The Muslim purge of Timbuktu

Decades of relative calm in Mali shaken after ousting of president in March.

tuareg nomad 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
tuareg nomad 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The legendary city of Timbuktu was once a great center of culture, trade, learning and wealth, but today it is only a shadow of its past.
Once home to thriving Jewish and Christian communities, it is currently in the throes of a radical Muslim insurgency, which is bent on driving out anything not acceptable to the strictest version of Wahhabist Islam.
Located in the Republic of Mali in northwest Africa, Timbuktu was often referred to as the Athens of Africa because it was a place of such enormous wealth and knowledge. When the emperor Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, the lore has it that, as he passed through Cairo, his wealth devalued the gold in Egypt for a decade.
The tale of Mali’s riches grew further when Ibn Battuta, the Berber equivalent to Marco Polo, wrote about his visit to Timbuktu in 1354. Upon arrival in the city, he found an urban melting pot of not only black Africans, but also many Jews and Arabs, a fact proven by the many volumes of Arabic and Hebraic scriptures still found in the city today.
According to Kulanu, a US-based organization tracing people of Jewish descent, there are still descendants of Jews living in the regions around Timbuktu. In 1996, a Malian newspaper published an article documenting the presence of Jewish descendants in Timbuktu. Their ancestors were probably Jewish merchants who came to Mali for business. Some 500 years ago, this group of black African Jews was forced to leave Judaism and convert to Islam.
Author Karen Primack, in her book Jews in Places You Never Thought of, visited Mali in the 1990s and discovered many Jewish traditions being practiced within certain communities around Timbuktu.
“The families have continually given newborns Jewish names; some members sign their names with a Star of David; some Hebrew songs are still sung; and they only marry among themselves, not a custom in Islam,” Primack wrote.
Today Mali is home to close to 15 million inhabitants, and the country has enjoyed a rather stable period since gaining its independence from France in 1960. But in late March, Mali experienced a coup d’état as president Amadou Toumani Toure was ousted after some 10 years in power. The coup was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer from the Malian army who questioned the president’s ability to subdue the Tuareg rebellion.
The Tuaregs, often referred to as “the blue men of the desert,” are a nomadic people inhabiting the northern parts of Mali. Since the 1960s, this group has launched several uprisings against the government in order to create their own state, Azawad. In January, they formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and launched an armed campaign seeking independence.
The group was backed by a more radical faction of Tuaregs called Ansar Dine, Arabic for defenders of Islam, whose goal is to impose strict Islamic law throughout Mali.
On April 6, an MNLA spokesman declared Azawad’s independence, and only days later Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, imposed Shari’a law in Timbuktu and began forcing the Christian population to flee. Thus several hundred Christians have fled Timbuktu in recent weeks, and churches in the city of Gao have been burned to the ground.
“We have escaped in the wake of horrible death threats, as the Islamists have a list of all the Christians in Timbuktu, whom they intend to execute by beheading,” Timothee Yattara, a Bible college student, recently told the Associated Press. “One leader has already been killed in this way, and some churches in Gao have been demolished.”
In early May, reports also emerged that radical Wahhabists linked to al-Qaida in the Maghreb had desecrated an ancient tomb in Timbuktu belonging to Saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar and listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Concerns are also growing that the Salafi group is planning to destroy over 20,000 ancient manuscripts preserved in the national library of Timbuktu, some of which have been compared in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In order to find out more about developments in Mali, The Christian Edition recently spoke with Dr. Maiga Abdou, a native of the village of Dire, located near Timbuktu. Abdou is a pastor and respected scholar who is currently in Israel to complete a course in conflict resolution at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and to deepen his knowledge of biblical Hebrew at the Home for Bible Translators in Yad Hashmona.
Abdou grew up in a strict Muslim family, and even at the tender age of five he could already recite long passages of the Koran by heart. He eventually completed dawa studies to be an imam, but then Abdou heard the testimony of an Algerian Muslim who had converted to Christianity and it made him curious to learn more about the Bible.
Eventually, he came across John 3:16, and he was astounded by the notion of a God of love, which was so absent in Islam. After much prayer and study of the Bible and the Koran, Abdou came to faith in Jesus. He later attended Bible schools in the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic, and began pastoring churches in both Timbuktu and Gao, in northern Mali.
Today he is a popular Bible teacher, West Africa’s leading expert in biblical Hebrew and pastor of a dynamic church in Senegal. He also heads a humanitarian NGO called “Compassion Sans Frontiers,” which assists the needy throughout West Africa, including orphans, prostitutes and the disabled.
Abdou explained that the vast majority of Mali’s population today is made up of Muslims, while barely two percent are Christians, including some 250,000 Evangelicals.
Asked about the current persecution of Christians in Mali, he draws a distinction between the Muslim-dominated north and the south, where there is greater tolerance for Christians. According to Abdou, before the recent implementation of Shari’a law, the persecution was more hidden, as Muslim society gradually tried to marginalize any converts to Christianity and their families.
“For example, if you were married and converted to Christianity, people around you would advise your wife to leave you, and so on,” Abdou said.
But today the Muslim persecution is worsening, claims Abdou, and the majority of Christians have indeed fled Timbuktu, while a small remnant remain in hiding in the city. He has been in touch with several pastors whose churches were recently destroyed, some Christians have been severely beaten and even killed and the rest are being forced to flee.
Abdou still has many other relatives in and around Timbuktu. He confirms the historical Jewish presence in the city and says that Torah scrolls have been in the country since well before 1000 CE. He says there are also Jewish inscriptions on stones and sculptures dating back to 320 BCE that refer to “Bnei Israel” (the sons of Israel) – inscriptions found all the way from Mali to Mauritania and Senegal.
Abdou has a great love and respect for Israel and the Jewish people, which he openly shares with his countrymen.
“I think that the majority of Christians in Mali have a lot of sympathy towards Israel, and I don’t know about a single Christian in Mali who is against Israel. I am trying to teach my congregation to love Israel, and that is one of the reasons for me being here. I am learning biblical and modern Hebrew, and the culture of Israel, in order to be able to teach my people back home more about Israel and to be able to defend her.”
Despite the rising threat of radical Islam in Mali and the entire Sahel region, Abdou says the people there are eager to hear the Gospel, and he will soon return to the region to share his faith in the God of the Bible and his love for Israel.