Churches attacked in Zanzibar as tensions rise

Masked men torched a Roman Catholic church in Zanzibar over the weekend, the third such attack in a week in the predominantly Muslim Indian Ocean archipelago, a church leader said on Monday.

Suspicions fell on Islamic extremists, highlighting rising Islamic militancy and growing political tensions as Zanzibar prepares for what is expected to be its most hotly contested presidential and legislative elections since the violent overthrow of the Omani Sultan in 1964.

Reverend Vincent Shiyo, a Roman Catholic priest, said four masked men torched his church on Saturday night in Mchangani, 15km from the centre of Unguja, the main island in the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania.

No one was injured in the attack that destroyed the outreach parish church, Shiyo said.

The attack occurred three days after unknown assailants set fire to a Lutheran church and demolished the wall of another Roman Catholic church.

Police are investigating the attacks, but no one has been arrested, regional police chief Hamad Issa said.

“What is sad is that there is no official condemnation of the attacks,” Shiyo said. “Both the police and government officials appear reluctant to condemn attacks on Christians.”

In April, three Roman Catholic churches and a school van were attacked with explosive devices in Zanzibar.

In the same month, suspected Islamic militants set off explosive devices targeting a local pub, homes of government officials and Christian and pro-government Muslim leaders.

“The Muslim fundamentalists are angry at the social services that the church extends to all without discrimination,” Shiyo said.

Some observers say the assailants may be seeking to drive from the archipelago people from mainland Tanzania before presidential and legislative elections expected at the end of next year.

Zanzibar, which united with the mainland to form the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964, elects its own president and legislature.

The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi, or Revolutionary Party, is expected to face a stiff challenge from the opposition Civic United Front following 2000 elections that were marred by irregularities, voter intimidation and politically motivated violence.

The United States State Department said between 24 and 70 people were killed when police dispersed opposition protesters demanding a new vote.—Sapa-AP

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