ACN Feature Story – Bitter memories of time of terror for the priests in Zanzibar

08.03.2019 in ACN, ACN Canada, ACN Feature, ACN International, ACN Interview, Africa, Africa, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Priests, TANZANIA, Tanzania, Violence against Christians, Zanzibar

Father Damas Mfoi: “There is no recovering from what’s happened, and since the assailants might still be active, we aren’t completely safe. But through all these problems, we continue our interfaith work.”

Father Damas Mfoi is a Catholic priest in the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim with a small Christian population. Since 2010, Father Mfoi has been a parish priest on the main island of Unguja. In 2012, the otherwise peaceful island community witnessed a series of violent attacks on religious leaders. A Muslim cleric was burned with acid in the fall of that year; a Catholic priest suffered gunshot wounds on Christmas Day 2012, and another was shot to death the following February. At the time, leaflets were distributed to incite violence, some of which bore the stamp of the radical Islamist group Uamsho. However, responsibility for the attacks has yet to be claimed or officially assigned. Father Mfoi tells Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) of the time of terror.

Interview by Anne Kidmose


“It was Christmas 2012, and we had planned to go for supper until we heard that Father Ambrose had been shot. Church leaders were in a state of shock, and we could no longer have our shared meal. We were frightened. We rushed to the hospital, but cautiously, as it was announced via leaflets that Church leaders would be killed, and that churches would be destroyed.


When we arrived, Father Ambrose was still bleeding, and he couldn’t talk. The following day, he was flown to Dar es Salaam for further treatment. After that, it was our faith that kept us here. People on the mainland called us home, but as Christians committed to the Gospel, we knew from the very beginning that ours was a mission of suffering, and that our lives might be threatened. There was no running away.


More leaflets were distributed, saying that Muslims should not allow the sale of alcohol, or the presence of churches. They were published anonymously, but today we know who they are. We didn’t know what would happen, though some said that they were just idle threats. But less than three months later, Father Evaristus Mushi was struck, and tragedy befell us.


It was a Sunday morning at 7:15 A.M.; I was saying Mass in a small church. A non-Catholic neighbour came running in; he shouted, “Father Damas, I have something to tell you!” He told me that Father Mushi was dead, the victim of a shooting. Some man shot him that morning, when he was parked in front of his church. I drove to the other churches to say Mass; now that Father Mushi was dead, I had to carry out the mission of Christ alone.


News of Father Mushi’s death rippled throughout the community, but that wasn’t the end of it. After we buried him and paid our last respects, a group of women came to our gates, crying. I told them, ‘Don’t cry now. Father Mushi is in heaven.’ One replied, ‘Father, she is not crying over Father Mushi. She is crying because of you.’ The assailants targeted me because I had built too many churches.


Father Damas Mfoi at the grave of Father Evaristus Mushi

The next morning, I escaped to the mainland, and a month later, I returned. I thought to myself, ‘There is no abandoning our mission. Jesus wouldn’t want to see us fail. There are Christians still here—why should their leaders run?’


Upon my return, I found that the police had set up a command post within my compound, and over the next two years, they patrolled the area because of the tension that lingered. The government took good care of us, but we knew, above all, that God protected us. When I was offered a bodyguard, I refused, believing that the work of Jesus did not require a machine gun; He promised his people that he would be with us until the end of time.


Six or seven months passed, and for a while, we thought that the worst was over, though security was still tight. But come September, a priest had acid splashed on him as he was leaving his regular café. He survived the attack but sustained major injuries.


There is no recovering from what’s happened, and since the assailants might still be active, we aren’t completely safe. But through all these problems, we continue our interfaith work. We talk to people in the community, and we tell them that we believe God created us all and gave us the freedom to believe in whatever way we were taught. Muslims are taught about Muhammad; Christians are taught about Jesus Christ. We should all do our best to respect that and avoid mixing politics with religion.”


In 2017, Aid to the Church in Need supported the Church in Tanzania with projects totaling more than 2,5 Million dollars.


On line: March 8, 2019


Zanzibar Jubilee “150 Years of Catholic Faith” – and the growing concern about radical Islam

21.01.2014 in ACN BENEFACTORS, ACN Canada, ACN International, ACN Interview, ACN PROJECTS, Zanzibar

By Reinhard Backes, ACN International

Adapted by AB Griffin, ACN Canada



To the Spiritan Fathers working on the two main islands of Unguja (or Zanzibar) and Pemba, which together make up Zanzibar and which since 1964 have also formed part of the East African nation of Tanzania, the words of Father Liebermann have been a source of comfort and enabled them to confront every difficulty – both then and now. On January 19th , 2014, the diocese honoured the commitment of these first missionaries with a special Jubilee celebration, marking “150 Years of Catholic Faith in the Diocese of Zanzibar”.

While it is true that Portuguese missionaries had already reached these East African islands by the end of the 16th century, they had subsequently been expelled again. It was not until the end of 1860 that the Catholic Faith took permanent root here. The then ruler of the islands, Sultan Sayyeid Majid bin Said, welcomed the new arrivals with these words: “You are welcome! My house is your house, my people are your people, I am your brother.” In 1863, Zanzibar was established by Rome as an apostolic prefecture.



Today, according to the Church’s pontifical yearbook, the Annuario Pontificio, there are some 13,600 Catholics living on Unguja and Pemba, thereby representing roughly 1% of the population. There are 20 priests involved in the pastoral work of the diocese. Bishop Augustine Shao, himself a Spiritan (CSSp), has been in charge of the diocese since 1997. The international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been supporting the pastoral work of the diocese for many years now. Traditionally, the Catholics have always lived in great harmony with the overwhelmingly Muslim population; however, sadly – and for some years now – the open attitude of Sultan Sayyeid Majid bin Said has no longer been shared by all his fellow Muslims. In recent years the climate of tolerance on Zanzibar has sharply changed, and although the charitable initiatives of the Catholic Church extend to include everyone, and indeed mostly Muslims, there are some extremist groups that are virulently hostile to the presence of Christians on Zanzibar and which express their opposition in more than simply words.


This was again made evident very recently, in September 2013, when in the parish of Mpandae an elderly Catholic priest was attacked with acid and severely burned. He survived the attack, but suffered severe acid burns and is currently being treated in India. For his parish it was not the first, but the fourth such violent attack. As Bishop Augustine Shao observed, “This has triggered fear – in me, in the priests, the religious and the parishioners. We are living like wanted criminals. It is sad enough that not one of the attackers has been arrested by the police, quite apart from the fact that this criminal act took place in broad daylight, in a market place.” Earlier, at the end of May 2012, the parish church in Mpandae had been attacked, and parts of the building and its furnishings had been set on fire and burned, before the attackers could be chased away.

ACN has already agreed to help towards the cost of repairing the damage.

Although the authorities in Zanzibar are now starting to move against the extremists, the situation remains tense and unpredictable. Bu,t the Catholics of Zanzibar are not going to let this spoil their joy in the Jubilee of their faith.