Zanzibar, Tanzania — It was the poverty and sense of isolation that drew the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary to Zanzibar in the first place. But when the violence started, even destroying their own church, it was their commitment to peace that made them stay.
“Many people tried to tell us to come back [to mainland Tanzania]. But we said if we run away, we’re running away from the cross of Christ. How can we leave people here?” said Sr. Yusta Tesha.
Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania known for pristine beaches at tourist resorts and busy commercial ports. Mainland Tanzania is split evenly between Muslims, Christians and traditional beliefs, while Zanzibar is more than 95 percent Muslim.
Arab traders that plied the coast of Africa throughout history made the island a central hub, and Islam became the dominant religion from their influence. There is a small community of approximately 11,000 Christians on the island of Zanzibar, out of a population of more than 1 million people.
Though relations are generally tolerant, waves of Muslim extremism sometimes sweep through the island, fueled by radical groups who get support and inspiration from international terror groups like Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. The spring of 2012, when an angry extremist mob burned the Church of St. Joseph in Stone Town, Zanzibar, was one of these times of heightened tension.
But the sisters remembered the order’s original call, its charism to go to the remotest areas.