For many centuries, the vast majority of Somalis have professed Islam. Like other East African Muslims, most have little knowledge of the Arabic language and therefore little understanding of their religion. They tend to follow different forms of folk Islam that include elements of ancestral pagan religions.
In the Horn of Africa, the cause of Christian missions among Somali peoples was not helped by the presence of colonial powers (Italian, French and British). Also, in the second half of the twentieth century, with generous financing by oil wealth, a modern Islamic missionary movement prospered.
It was led by Egyptian and Saudi Muslims, who succeeded in bringing about a Somali Islamic revival. In recent years, this gave birth to radical Muslim Brotherhood groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
Most prominent among these is the aggressive, well-armed Harkat Al-Shabab (Youth movement), whose adherents have committed acts of terror, also in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.
Attempts by Al-Shabab and other fanatical groups to impose extremist religious customs and practices have antagonised the Somali population, especially in urban areas. However, modern education, the publication of the Somali Bible, gospel radio broadcasts, and, more recently, the spread of cellular phones and the Internet have exposed Somalis to the Christian faith.
Sheep among wolves
A small but growing number of Somali converts still face severe persecution, and some have been martyred. Only if they are immigrants to Western countries, or live in parts of Ethiopia, can Somali believers worship together openly.
In most Somali communities, converts must worship secretly in homes, as it is much too dangerous to express their faith publicly. MERF’s Somali ministry leader makes periodic visits to house churches in relatively safe areas of Somalia, Somaliland and Ogaden (a Somali-speaking region in south-east Ethiopia).
The visits have a threefold objective: to encourage believers, to train spiritual leaders and to connect new converts to local fellowships. Visits are supported by gospel broadcasts, literature, SMS text messaging and email. Needy believers also receive diaconal aid, such as food, medicine, clothing, farm seeds, or animal feed.
Not long ago, a small group of converts travelled from central Somalia to a secret location in Somaliland and spent a few weeks together enjoying fellowship with other believers and solid biblical instruction.
Upon their return, they sent this message: ‘In God’s mercy we arrived safely to our homes, praising God for the rest and spiritual nourishment we received …We have experienced truly loving Christian hospitality and fellowship. We are also thankful for the much needed medical care some of us received’.
A group of converts in another Somali community recently wrote: ‘The radio signal is clear these days. We ask all Christians to pray for us and for all Somali believers. We are surrounded by human wolves, but our Jesus is the strong lion who daily protects us’.