by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 24 January, 2003
leading figures in the Yemeni Socialist Party fear they could be
targets for assassination following the murder of Jarallah Omar
al-Kuhali, the party's deputy secretary-general.
Jarallah Omar was shot dead by a
man armed with two guns as he finished making a speech at a
conference organised by the Islah party, which combines tribal,
conservative and Islamist elements.
His killer is said to belong to an
extremist cell, possibly consisting of five to eight people, which
is targeting foreigners and secular Yemenis such as prominent
A 35-year-old Yemeni who shot dead
three American missionaries at a Baptist-run hospital in Jibla,
central Yemen, a few days later, is thought to belong to the same
Both suspected killers are now
under arrest, though the man accused of assassinating Jarallah
Omar was not immediately handed to the police.
Instead, he was taken instead to
the home of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who is leader of the Islah
party, speaker of the Yemeni parliament and the country's foremost
tribal leader. He was then interrogated on videotape in the
sheikh's home, in the presence of representatives from various
In both cases the suspects appear
to have been motivated by extreme religious views, but it is
unclear whether they had links to Usama bin Laden.
The small number of Christians in
Yemen - almost all of them foreigners - are allowed to worship
freely but sometimes attract the attention of Muslim militants who
accuse them of proselytising. There are also occasional violent
A British-built church in Aden was
bombed in 2001 and three nuns were shot dead in Hodeidah four
years ago - by a veteran of the conflict in Bosnia who was later
officially declared insane.
The American Southern Baptists
have been working in Yemen for 35 years and their hospital at
Jibla has a high reputation for its medical work, though it has
sometimes been accused of trying to convert Muslims to
The Baptists deny using their
hospital to evangelise - at least openly.
"Open evangelism to me is
standing on the street corner selling Bibles," Al Lindholm,
their chief representative in Yemen, told the New York Times.
"Do we evangelise? No. Are we
asked questions about our faith almost daily? Yes, and we answer
them as honestly as we know how."
Nevertheless, the website of the
Southern Baptist Convention, whose International Mission Board was
running the hospital, does make its aspirations clear, urging
members to "ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches
among the Yemeni".
An American website,
pray4yemen.com, also claims that missionary work in central Yemen
is bearing fruit.
"After 30 years of Christian
outreach, small house churches are beginning to appear," it
says. "It is possible that the central Yemeni Arabs could
present the first church growth planting movement among the
The hospital once included a
chapel where Yemenis sometimes came to hear Bible stories and sing
songs, but it was closed in 1982 after complaints that the
Baptists had converted 200 Yemenis to Christianity.
Despite the controversy about
evangelism, news of the murders brought many expressions of
sympathy and appreciation from Yemenis in the Jibla area.
One puzzling aspect of the
killings is that they came just 48 hours before the Baptists were
due to hand over the hospital to a Yemeni (Muslim) charity as part
of a cost-saving exercise. This suggests that the killer may not
have been seeking to drive the Baptists out but seized a final
opportunity to attack them before they left.
Meanwhile, several hundred Yemenis
have taken part in demonstrations outside the German embassy in
Sana'a, protesting at the arrest of a well-known Yemeni cleric and
his assistant for suspected links to al-Qaeda.
In what may have been a CIA sting
operation, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Mouyad was reportedly
lured to Germany to receive a large charitable donation from an
American Muslim - though his family says he merely went there for
The sheikh and his assistant were
arrested on January 10 at a hotel near Frankfurt airport on an
American warrant and are now held at a maximum-security prison
pending a decision on their extradition to the United States.