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Mali violence has not disrupted Christian-Muslim ties, says aid worker

An armed police officer climbs stairs at the hotel where 17 people died in Sevare, Mali, on August 11 (CNS)

A Catholic aid worker in Mali said Islamist violence has failed to disrupt friendly ties between Christians and Muslims, and he called for a co-ordinated development strategy as “the best means to combat extremism”.

“The tensions here aren’t between Christians and Muslims — if people are left in peace, they get on as well as they always did,” said Niek de Goeij, country representative for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in the north African country.

He said young people cannot find jobs, and when “someone comes with a motivating agenda, using religious arguments about fighting some enemy, and offering a gun and $50 a month, it’s easy to see how they get sucked in.”

In June, Mali’s government and the northern Tuareg and Arab rebels who hoped to establish a separatist state signed a peace agreement, brokered by Algeria. Under the agreement, northern rebel fighters are to be integrated into government security forces, and regional assemblies were to be elected, but without full autonomy, to prevent separatism.

However, rebel attacks have continued since the agreement, which was witnessed by Muslim and Christian religious leaders.

“The government is still unable to control large areas, and it’s very risky to go out of the main towns,” de Goeij told Catholic News Service. He said two CRS staffers had been blindfolded and robbed at gunpoint near Timbuktu on August 16, while continuing attacks by separatist and Islamist insurgents were giving aid agencies “pause for thought.”

However, he added that no pressure was being exerted against Mali’s Christian minority by ordinary Muslims, and he added that the work of Christian charities was protected by local people.

“But people know our work, and our Christian and Catholic identity, far from being a liability, provides an extra protective cloak. This acceptance posture is a real blessing.”

De Goeij said CRS had helped Mali’s government improve its capacity to provide services nationwide, adding that he believed the offer of paid army jobs was a “real incentive” for rebels to adhere to the peace deal.

However, he added that extremist groups rejecting the agreement would continue to inflict violence and said the attack on Sevare, a centre for CRS’s work in the north, had caused deep concern.

“The Malian government isn’t rich, but just small investments in equipment and training can improve its service delivery and so strengthen its legitimacy,” he said.

“As in other countries here, Christians and Muslims routinely intermarry, often undergoing Christian, Muslim and traditional weddings, and communal relations are close. If violence flares, it’s usually interethnic, rather than interreligious, involving issues such as water access or animal grazing.”

“Mali’s main challenges are to create an accountable democracy for all people nationwide and to get out of the cycle of dependency caused by short-term shocks and disruptions. Very often, a terrorist is a young person looking for a job, who sees his parents toiling on the land to make ends meet and sees no other prospects,” de Goeij said.

“If such people had money in the bank, education for their children, access to health care and trust in services, the country would be able to remove the pockets of extremism still existing here.”