Zanzibar’s bishop has said priests and other clergy in his diocese are terrified after a priest was murdered outside his parish church in what is seen by many as a terrorist attack.
“We are very afraid,” said Bishop Augustine Shao, noting that clergy “were warned of attacks” before and after the murder last week of 56-year-old Fr Evaristus Mushi.
Fr Mushi’s car was followed by two men on motorcycles who blocked his way, shot and killed him, Bishop Shao said in a telephone interview from Zanzibar, a group of Indian Ocean islands that is part of Tanzania.
The Vatican’s Fides news agency reported that a text message, received by bishops and priests in Tanzania after Fr Mushi’s death, said: “We thank our young men, trained in Somalia, for killing an infidel. Many more will die. We will burn homes and churches. We have not finished: at Easter, be prepared for disaster”; Signed “Muslim Renewal”.
“We have given the warnings we have received to security” authorities in Zanzibar, Bishop Shao said, noting that he was sceptical but hopeful that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.
“Many promises have been made, but they [the authorities] are very slow to make good on these promises,” he said.
Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete said in a statement that he had directed the police force to use its full strength to conduct a speedy and thorough investigation into Fr Mushi’s murder.
The Tanzanian inspector general of police, Said Mwema, said the police “understand that these crimes are being propped up by some bad elements under the pretext of politics, religion or economic reasons, though no religion or political grouping supports violence in principle,” according to Tanzania’s Daily News.
About 30 per cent of mainland Tanzanians are Christian, 35 per cent are Muslim and 35 per cent profess traditional African beliefs. In Zanzibar, more than 95 per cent of residents are Muslim.
About two-thirds of Zanzibar’s population of 1.2 million lives on the main island of Unguja, about 30 miles from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and commercial hub.
A Protestant pastor in Zanzibar, Mathew Kachira, was killed a week earlier, according to Fides.
Bishop Shao said another diocesan priest, Fr Ambrose Mkenda, was shot and seriously wounded on Christmas Day and is still in the hospital.
Also, last November, a Muslim cleric had his face and chest injured in an acid attack.
More than five churches on the island were set alight in arson attacks last year.
This type of attack “is new to the country, and we are looking for reasons”, Bishop Shao said, noting that the perpetrators “could be criminals using the cover of religion”.
Another possibility is that advocates for Zanzibar’s secession from the mainland are “using attacks on the Church for political gain”, Bishop Shao said.
“They feel that no one is listening to them, and it could be that, through these attacks on the church, they want to draw the world’s attention to their cause,” he said.
While “Christians and Muslims have been living peacefully together in Zanzibar for more than 200 years,” Muslim extremists “have infiltrated the island and are said to be bribing unemployed youth to carry out their work”, the bishop said.
Extreme poverty in the East African nation “makes people vulnerable to bribery”, he said.
Tanzania is “a peaceful country and we walk as a nation,” Bishop Shao said, noting that “the fact that we share a language – Swahili – has been a very uniting factor.”
The Church and its people in Zanzibar “are simple citizens, without a political agenda, so why are we being attacked to achieve political aims?” he said.
Zanzibar “is not a big place, and so this new violence can be brought under control if those in charge do their work properly”, he said.
A Tanzanian government spokesman called Fr Mushi’s murder a “terrorist attack”, according to the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen.
Bishop Robert Lynch of St Petersburg, Florida, in whose diocese Fr Mushi had worked, said in a blog that the details of the priest’s death “were astounding to me and crushing. This good priest whom the people of St Benedict’s Parish in Crystal River and Our Lady of Grace Parish in Beverly Hills came to know and love was murdered.”
Bishop Lynch said Fr Mushi was an “extremely kind, generous and genuinely holy priest” who “may well be a martyr for the faith”.
Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Dar es Salaam celebrated the funeral Mass for Fr Mushi in Zanzibar.