Unidentified assailants attacked Father Joseph Anselmo Mwangamba with acid Sept. 13 in Zanzibar, an island off the East African coast, burning his face, chest, and arms. The Catholic priest, 61, was leaving an internet café at the time of the attack in historic Stone Town, popular with tourists and the capital of Tanzania’s Muslim-majority archipelago.
It is the fifth acid attack in Zanzibar since November 2012. Last month, Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup, Jewish 18-year-olds from Britain volunteering in St. Monica Nursery school, were doused with acid in a moped “drive-by” in Stone Town.
Mwangamba’s assailants also tried to enter his home, according to the Barnabas Fund. BBC reports portrayed the acid attack as an “isolated incident,” but a U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement notes an increase in violent crime in Tanzania as well as “an underlying threat from terrorism” purportedly from Somali group al-Shabaab. In 1998 Islamic terrorists directed by Osama bin Laden bombed the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania.
Following the latest acid attack, local police said they confiscated 29 liters of acid from people unauthorized to possess it. They claimed the attacks are linked to al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, but Police Commissioner Mussa Ali Mussa was unable to give corroborating evidence, The New York Times reported.
Whether or not jihadist motives are linked to Zanzibar’s spate of acid attacks, it adds to the fear of many Christians. Zanzibar, which is 98 percent Muslim, desires to become an Islamist state autonomous from Tanzania’s mainland. WorldWatch Monitor reported escalating tensions between Zanzibar’s Christians and Muslim populations: Last February, attackers killed Father Evarist Mushi outside his church in Zanzibar.
On Tanzania’s mainland, where Christians make 54 percent of the population, conflicts have also arisen: A group of youths believed to be Muslims beheaded Pastor Mathayo Kachila in Buseresere in February. In May, Christian Solidarity Worldwide said a newly built Catholic cathedral near mainland Arusha was bombed during its inaugural Mass, leaving three dead and at least 60 injured.
World Watch List this year ranked Tanzania 24th in its annual list of 50 countries where life as a Christian is most difficult: “On the Zanzibar archipelago, Islamic militants bent on wiping out all Christians from the islands have burnt and looted churches and threatened Christians with death.”
According to the Barnabas Fund, “the Christian community in Tanzania is under assault on a number of fronts; threats and attacks against them are on the rise as Islamists grow in strength.”
The Zanzibar islands have been in union with Tanzania since 1964, but with their own president, parliament, and constitution. A proposed new federal constitution will go to referendum in April 2014 and could pave the way for further Islamization of the islands.