Asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo wait for health screening near the border in Zombo, Uganda. (Photo: UNHCR/Rocco Nuri)
When Brenda Namutebi renounced Islam and accepted Christ as her savior in a local Catholic Church, her Muslim husband and neighbors subjected her to harsh conditions, hoping she might change her mind.
Namutebi's husband beat her severely, squeezed her throat and threatened her with death and divorce. Her neighbors cursed her and told her she would never live in the community and have peace as long as she was a Christian.
"I went through hell and I didn't know I would survive," said the 35-year-old mother of three young children, who was rescued by police and now lives in a rental home in Bududa. "They wanted to kill me because of my faith, but Jesus saved me. I will continue to believe in Christ, despite the troubles I'm going through right now."
Her husband has now married another wife and disowned her children. The local sheikhs have ordered her to return her dowry of $180 and 13 cows to her husband and his family. Failure to make any payment would warrant her arrest and being detained until she pays back the dowry, she said.
"They don't even care that I am single-handedly raising my children without a job," Namutebi said as she broke down in tears and had to be comforted by her children.
Namutebi is one of millions of Christians in Uganda who face persecution from radical Muslims and some members of traditional African religions. Most Ugandans are Christian, but Namutebi lives in a region where most of the Muslim population resides. Through the country's decentralized system of government, the region has become essentially a self-governed Shariah fiefdom.
In neighboring Budaka district, Julius Musisi, 16, was killed in October after being attacked with a machete by Muslim extremists for refusing to convert to Islam. His father, Peter Mukisa, a Catholic catechist, said Julius was attacked on his way from the market and told he must convert to Islam.
"When my son refused to convert to Islam he was hacked to death," said Mukisa, noting that the incident happened a few days after hardline Muslims also beat and drowned a 25-year-old pastor Protestant pastor and his church member in Lake Nakuwa. "We've been living in fear of attacks, and we need the government to protect us."
The situation in eastern Uganda is mirrored across the country. On Oct. 31, Muslim extremists killed a pastor in northern Uganda after he compared Christianity and Islam in a radio broadcast. David Omara, 64, a pastor of Christian Church Center and a well-known radio preacher in the area, was beaten and strangled after finishing his broadcast.
People from throughout the religious spectrum have condemned the attacks, telling Ugandans they should not be divided by religion.
Father Romanus Olweny of the Archdiocese of Tororo reiterated his call for tolerance and peace in the face of attacks, emphasizing that both Islam and Christianity promote tolerance and peace.
"It's very disheartening to lose lives because of one's belief," Father Olweny told Catholic News Service. "We have to be tolerant with one another and live in an open and free society where one is allowed to worship freely without fear of attacks."
Father Olweny, who holds a Ph.D. in Education and lectures at St. Paul's College in Mbale, urged Christian and Muslim leaders to persevere in their role as educators by preaching love and brotherhood within families, communities and places of worship. He also urged all people to seek peace and strive to show mercy and compassion amid difficult circumstances.
"Our message of peace and tolerance has been very clear in our parishes and everywhere we go," said Father Olweny, who also visits villages to promote peace and unity among Christians and Muslims. "We want people to live in harmony and recognize each other as brother and sister."
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Uganda Constitution but is not widely practiced.
Father Timothy Mayamba of St. John Bosco Catholic Parish in Bududa said there was widespread intolerance toward Christians, especially Catholics in eastern Uganda. He said it was time for the police to prevent the crimes. Segregation and persecution of Christians is not only violent but can be done psychologically, he noted.
"In most cases, it's not open persecution like you hear in other countries, where people are prohibited from praying," he told CNS. "Vulnerable and needy persons are a soft target. Perpetrators always put pressure on people who are in need, threatening to suspend the support unless they convert to the religion they want. We have had incidents where perpetrators have removed rosaries from children and parishioners and destroyed them (rosaries)."
"It is a big threat because everything begins small; these small thing amounts to something big," the priest said. "People are instilling anger into the young people at such an age. Eventually, they make the child grow with a lot of prejudice to one another."
Sheikh Muhammad Yusuf, a leader in eastern Uganda, said Islam "totally forbids the killing of innocents," and attacks on Christians are "unacceptable and condemnable" and defy the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.
"But I want to urge some of our Christian brothers to exercise respect and discipline while carrying out their activities," he said. "They need not to provoke other people who belong to different faith. We all need to be tolerant with one another."