Mopti — At the entrance to the Evangelical church in Mopti, central Mali, military soldiers stood on either side of the door as Pastor Luc Sagara greeted his parishioners for Sunday mass.
The presence of the soldiers were a stark reminder that less than three weeks ago the town was under occupation by Islamist extremists committed to the imposition of Sharia law in this West African nation.
"We feel safe now. With the French intervention, we are hopeful that the Islamists will not attack us," Sagara told IPS.
France launched a military intervention in Mali on Jan. 11 at the request of the country's interim President Dioncounda Traoré after extremists advanced on the town of Konna, 60 kilometres northeast of Mopti. As the Islamists occupied town after town, intent on seizing the capital Bamako, Sharia law was imposed, and Christians and moderate Muslims were persecuted.
Since April 2012, northern Mali has been taunted by a coalition of armed groups composed of Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar Dine, an Islamist group among Mali's Tuareg population that live across the country's southeast.
The rebels reportedly destroyed religious shrines and church buildings, and imposed extreme Sharia law - engaging in public floggings, executions and amputations.
International rights group, Human Rights Watch, said that the rebels engaged in extensive looting, pillage, the recruitment of child soldiers and the rape of women and young girls. "Armed groups in northern Mali in recent weeks have terrorised civilians by committing abductions and looting hospitals," Corinne Dufka, senior Africa researcher at HRW, said in April 2012.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the recent conflict has led to the internal displacement of 250,000 people. Mopti was one of the towns that people from the north sought refuge in - until it too was occupied.
Many of the minority Christians, who constitute five percent of the country's 15.8 million people, either fled Mopti or were living here in fear during the occupation.
A local Imam from the town, Abdoulaye Maiga, told IPS that no one had been safe from the extremists, regardless of their religious affiliations.
"We are all victims of those terrorists. We are all Malians and we all fled together," he said. Members of his family had taken flight from northern Mali's largest town of Gao.
"When my family came here, they brought with them a Christian family, and we loaned them some of our (traditional) clothes so the terrorists would let them travel without problems."
In Diabaly, another liberated central Malian town, Pastor Daniel Konaté prepared for his first Christian service since the Islamists were ousted. The graffiti on the church wall that read, "Allah is the only one", and the bullets scattered on the floor served as a reminder of the Islamist occupation.
"They made my church a military base," Konaté told IPS. During the occupation he and his family fled to a village 20 kilometers away, returning only after Malian and French forces successfully repelled Islamists here on Jan. 21.
But Konaté still wonders how the extremists had known that this plain unassuming building, which has no signs to indicate that it is a place of worship, was a church.
"We think some people might have told them that this is a church," said Konaté as 30 parishioners gathered and the service began with the singing of "It is not God who betrays us. It is men that betray God."
Ever since locals recognised two former high-ranking Malian military soldiers who used to be posted in Diabaly among the Islamist forces, community members believe the Islamist fighters had local support. Now, neighbours who once lived peacefully together are suspicious of one another.
During the town's occupation Pascal Touré's small four-bedroom house on the outskirts of Diabaly hid 27 Christian refugees terrified of being singled out for persecution by the occupying Islamists.
"It seems obvious that some locals reported where the Christians were. Among the locals, everybody knows each other," he told IPS.
But Touré, a Christian who also teaches catechism, is adamant that seeking revenge is not a solution.
The refugees have left Touré's house and returned to their own homes in Diabaly "but life in the town will not be the same for Christians."
Though there are some here who hang on to the memories of a peaceful past, optimistically believing that life will return to what it had been before the conflict. Bakary Traoré, a Muslim and a retired teacher, is one of them.
"Christians were targeted. But all of Diabaly has been a victim. The Islamists did not have the time to impose Sharia, but if they did, everyone would have suffered. They did not succeed. And now we can all live in harmony like we were before. As one people."