RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Southern Baptist workers in Mali are prayerfully waiting out the unfolding military coup that erupted in the West African nation March 22.
Rebellious factions of Mali’s army stormed the presidential palace last Wednesday night, announcing on state television the following day that they had ended President Amadou Toumani Toure’s rule, suspended the constitution and closed Mali’s borders.
Cliff and Rachel Blunt*, Southern Baptist humanitarian aid workers in Bamako, Mali’s capital, with their two young daughters, have endured the sound of nearly constant weapons fire since the coup began, but the fighting came especially close Thursday night when the Blunts witnessed a group of men firing guns immediately outside the gate of their home. The Blunts’ guard suspects the men were robbing a store. For Rachel, it was too close for comfort.
“We could hear everything the guys with the guns were saying. They were close enough to us that we could have carried on a conversation with them. … I could actually smell gunpowder,” Rachel said in an interview via Skype. “None of us are [military] targets. The only thing you have to worry about is when already desperate people get [even more] desperate — they can do stupid stuff.”
The Blunts awoke to heavy machine gun fire Friday morning just a few hundred yards from their home.
“We’ve heard a good bit of automatic weapons fire,” Cliff said in the Skype interview. “From time to time we’ll hear what sounds like an explosion.” He said the family is “following the [American] embassy’s recommendation to shelter in place, avoid unnecessary travel and lay low.”
The Blunts believe the biggest threat isn’t from rebel soldiers; instead, it’s crime that worries them — thieves, bandits and roaming gangs who could take advantage of the police vacuum. Isolated reports of looting already are surfacing.
Renegade soldiers have imposed a curfew and shut down Bamako’s airport. It ruined the travel plans of an Arkansas church volunteer team due to depart Mali Friday evening. The team is part of Southern Baptists’ efforts to share Christ with villages in Mali’s bush, which is where the team will remain for now.
“Truthfully, being out in the bush is about the most secure place you can be in Mali right now,” Cliff said. “They seem to be in high spirits and taking it like champs.”
This isn’t the first time the Blunts have dealt with civil unrest during their short time in Africa. Less than a year ago, a military uprising hit Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, just four days after the Blunts arrived on the field for their first term as Southern Baptist workers.
“We knew that there were risks involved. But it’s all a matter of your theology. If you really believe that God has a plan … and that people need to be reconciled to Him through Christ … it ought to compel you to act,” Cliff said. “While some of this stuff might have been a surprise to us … none of it is a surprise to Him.
“The same God who gave me my family is the same God who called us to this, together. And He loves my wife and my kids more than I do.”
Above all, the Blunts ask for prayer.
“… That we would seek the Lord through this, that God would give us His perspective, that we would walk in faith and not in fear … and be able to point others to the Lord,” Cliff said.
After the March 22 coup, Southern Baptist missionaries in West Africa asked Christian to pray for Mali.
Renegade soldiers took over the palace of Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako, reportedly exchanging heavy fire during the offensive Wednesday night. The insurgents also captured Mali’s state television station, taking to the airwaves to announce the end of Toure’s “incompetent” regime, the suspension of Mali’s constitution and closing of the country’s borders.
Among issues alleged by military forces staging the coup: blame of Toure for lack of support in their fight against an armed rebellion in the north by Mali’s nomadic Tuareg people.
The United States joined a chorus of voices — including the United Nations, European Union and many of Mali’s West African neighbors — in condemning the coup and demanding return to constitutional rule. Mali’s military pledged to hold elections once national unity is restored.
The American embassy in Bamako advised U.S. citizens in Mali to stay indoors.
Brad Bessent, a Baptist pastor in South Carolina who has traveled to Mali as a missions volunteer, wrote on his blog March 23, “I still remember the last night of my first trip to Mali in 2007. A friend there said, ‘Are you alright?’ I said, ‘How can anyone see what I have seen and be alright?’ The hunger, the poverty, the fear, so many things that rip your heart.
“So when I heard the news early yesterday, I could not help but weep. Weep and pray,” wrote Bessent, who leads the Church Unleashed @ Beulah in the Columbia, S.C., area. “I have too many friends there. I have seen so many beautiful children, and people. I have enjoyed their smiles. I have enjoyed their hospitality, even when they had so little to share.”
Among missionaries’ prayer requests for Mali:
— that God will provide a peaceful resolution to the conflict, sparing further fighting and potential loss of life.
— for wisdom among world leaders as they attempt to diffuse the situation.
— for special protection for women and children in Mali as they are often targets of violence and abuse during periods of unrest.
— that God will use the situation to open opportunities for the Gospel to provide hope to Malians who do not know Christ.
*Names changed. Don Graham is senior writer at the International Mission Board. Listen to audio from the interview with Cliff and Rachel Blunt as Rachel talks about the lie of perceived “safety” for Christians at the center of God’s will.