Nun murdered, 6 beheaded by the Islamic State in Mozambique

Residents gather for a distribution of utensils organized by the Catholic relief organization CARITAS in the village of Muagamula, outside Macomia, northern Mozambique on August 24, 2019.
Residents gather for a distribution of utensils organized by the Catholic relief organization CARITAS in the village of Muagamula, outside Macomia, northern Mozambique on August 24, 2019. | AFP via Getty Images/MARCO LONGARI

Amid rising jihadist violence in Mozambique, an 83-year-old Italian nun was shot and killed and six others were beheaded earlier this month by suspected militants aligned with the Islamic State.

Sister Maria de Coppi was killed in the Sept. 6 attack in Chipene city when gunmen stormed a Catholic mission compound and set fire to buildings, including the church and hospital, according to reports.

The attack lasted five hours as the militants ransacked and burned the Diocese of Nacala's mission church, school, health center, dwellings, library and vehicles, reports Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. 

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"They destroyed everything," said Bishop Alberto Vera of Nacala in a phone interview, saying de Coppi served as a nun there for 60 years. "The attackers broke open the tabernacle and vandalized part of the sacristy, looking for whatever they could find — probably money."

According to eyewitnesses, the terrorists forced the sisters to leave the convent. Other nuns fled with the girls. As de Coppi was about to leave, she remembered smaller children were still in the building. When she went back to retrieve the children, she was shot. 

The nun's killing is "part of a progression of attacks by insurgents" that began in late August in two northern provinces of Mozambique, the Catholic news outlet Fides reports.

President Filipe Nyusi issued a statement revealing that on the day the nun was killed, "terrorists" also beheaded six citizens, kidnapped three people and torched dozens of houses in Erati and Memba districts in Nampula province.

According to reports, the gunmen were likely running away from security forces from Mozambique, Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community.

At least 24 countries have sent troops to support the fight against insurgents in Mozambique, whose army has been accused of being corrupt and having 7,000 "ghost soldiers," according to the BBC.

Islamic State-affiliated insurgents in northern Mozambique, a Christian-majority country, have internally displaced more than three-quarters of a million people, according to the United Nations.

In the coastal province of Cabo Delgado, Islamic extremists have been exploiting the crisis after a civil war started in 2017. The area is rich with gas, rubies, graphite, gold and other natural resources. Protesters demonstrated at the time against what they say is profits going to an elite in the ruling Frelimo Party, with few jobs for local residents.

"In 2017, jihadist insurgents began in the Cabo-Delgado province, winning over some locals due to the fact that they gave back resources to villagers from the government and killed no one," the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reported earlier. "This did not last, however, as IS started setting fire to Christian villages, and killing those who lived there."

Cabo Delgado is a mostly Muslim region where at least 300 Christians have been killed for their faith, according to ICC. There have also been over 100 attacks on churches in the area.

In March 2021, the United States labeled Islamic State-Mozambique as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists." ISIS-Mozambique is also known as Ansar al-Sunna and known locally as al-Shabaab. The group reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as early as April 2018 and has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. 

In November 2020, Islamic State-linked militants beheaded over 50 people, including women and children, and abducted others in weekend raids in the Miudumbe and Macomia districts of the Cabo Delgado province.

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