The West African nation of Mali stands at a momentous crossroads this weekend, with the future freedom of its Christians at stake, according to Malian Christian pastors.
On Sunday (18 June) the nation will vote in a referendum over the introduction of a new constitution, and Mohamed, a Christian covert from capital Bamako says he is urging his flock to vote “yes”.
"This new constitution is very important to us," commented Rev Dr Mohamed-Ibrahim Yattara, spokesperson for the national church body: Association des Eglises et Missions Protestantes Evangeliques au Mali.
"It defines what is freedom of religion. For us, this is a crucial issue," he said.
The new constitution provides the possibility for Mali to be recognized as a secular state, distinguishing government from religious affairs, a factor some Christians say is vital.
“In recent times we have witnessed an uprising of certain Muslim leaders against the republic and against secularism,” says Pastor Pierre Dacko of the Protestant Evangelical Church in Bamako and vice-president of the National Council of the Evangelical Church of Mali.
“Mali is a republican country, a secular and democratic country. With the new draft of constitution that the government has presented to the people, certain Muslim voices have risen against the word ‘secularism’, he explained.
“They want at all costs secularism to be removed from the constitution. If we remove ‘secularism’ what are we going to put in its place? We see all this as a force against the Church, against Christians. This is why we make an earnest call on brothers and sisters in the global Church to wholeheartedly support us in prayer”, he added.
“Thus far, the government is committed to this constitution. The government has maintained secularism and a large part of the population supports this. But we must pray until the end”, Pastor Dacko said.
The referendum is taking place within a context of lingering insecurity at the hands of Islamic radicals. While the country is not explicitly an Islamic nation under the old constitution, persecution charity Open Doors UK says that in practice, it has moved in that direction since the 2012 rebellion in the north of the country.
Open Doors observes that the Islamic community is more divided, pointing out that the document states that Mali is an “independent, sovereign, unitary, indivisible, democratic, secular and social republic”.
Open Doors says that many Imams, who wield a great deal of power in the country have called on Muslims to vote ‘no’ but point out that leaders are hopeful that many will vote according to their conscience.
For a long time, Mali was known for the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians. However, according to Mohamed recent religious developments have strained this harmony.
“Many Muslims who go to Mecca or visit an Arabic country want to start a new mosque. Bamako is full of mosques, and there is a new Islam at large. It is a stricter and less tolerant Islam than the one we Christians lived alongside for so many years. I know many moderate Muslims feel the same way.”
“Religion has entered into the public domain in a new way and that has changed everything.”
“My fear, and the fear of many of my fellow believers is that we could end up living in a hard-line Islamic state, which enforces Sharia law. It will make every Christian in Mali fear for their future. This constitution, for all its other faults is our best chance of avoiding this.”
Mali is number 17 on Open Doors’ World Watch List of nations where Christians face the most serious persecution, having risen several places in recent years.