A Somali Christian leader has condemned the halting of the work of three relief organisations in Somalia by Al Shabaab, an Islamic militant group, which alleged the agencies were propagating Christianity - writes Fredrick Nzwili.
"Now that they have suspended their work, it is the local people who will suffer," Pastor Ahmed Abukar Mukhtar, the leader in exile of a small Christian community in Somalia, told ENInews in Nairobi last week.
Abukar, who fled Somalia for Kenya, criticised Al Shabaab, which controls most of southern Somalia, for claiming that the agencies engaged in attempting to convert Muslims, who account for almost all of Somalia's people.
"I think the allegations are not true. They have used this excuse to expel the agencies," said Abukar.
On 8 August, Harakat Al Shabaab Al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior Youth) demanded that World Vision, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), and Diakonia, a Swedish agency, immediately cease operations in Somalia.
"Acting as missionaries under the guise of humanitarian work, the organisations have been spreading their corrupted ideologies in order to taint the pure creed of the Muslims in Somalia," Al Shabaab said in a statement.
Bishop Giorgio Bertin of Djibouti, who is the Roman Catholic apostolic administrator for Somalia, told ENInews he condemned the "intolerant approach" of Al Shabaab in forcing out the three agencies.
"Of course [the agencies] were inspired by their faith," said Bertin. "But since they were giving a good service according to international humanitarian criteria, they are not to be impeded in their charitable work."
In a 9 August statement, World Vision said keys to its offices and assets were taken from staff by Al Shabaab. It said that its operations in affected areas of Somalia have been temporarily suspended while it plans its next steps.
"World Vision is surprised and disappointed by the move, which is apparently based on false accusations of spreading Christianity," the agency said.
It quoted its Somalia programme director, Chris Smoot, as saying that while World Vision is a Christian organisation, "we have specific policies that prohibit proselytising and we are a signatory to the Red Cross code of conduct that guarantees impartiality in our distribution of aid".
ADRA, which has worked in Somalia since 1992, said closing operations in south-central Somalia, where it has been rehabilitating wells, working to provide livelihoods and increasing access to education, would adversely affect 180,000 people.
It noted that it is a signatory to the code of conduct that bans proselytising.
Diakonia, a Swedish Christian development agency that has been working in Somalia since 1994, said, "Our efforts are aimed at people harmed by poverty, oppression and violence in various forms, regardless of their faith, skin colour or gender. A diversity of religious convictions and non-religious organisations is represented in our network."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]