BAMAKO, Mali (BP) -- Throughout the conflict in Mali, Christians in the south have embraced their fleeing northern countrymen with compassion and helped provide basic necessities.

As their funds run dry, international Christian workers in Mali are coming together with Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist international relief and development organization, to continue to meet their needs.

Last year several rebellious factions, including Islamic extremists, took over the northern part of Mali. As they pushed from town to town, northerners were forced to escape south to save their families. There are now over 260,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mali, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. An estimated 170,000 more are registered as refugees in neighboring countries.

More than 400 Christians arrived in Mali's capital, Bamako, with what they could carry in a simple sack and the clothes on their back.

"The Christian community in Bamako rallied together and, despite many missionaries being called to return to their sending countries or choosing to evacuate temporarily, the Malian believers began collecting offerings to support their brothers and sisters from the north," said Debra Fields*, an American Christian living in Mali.

"One explained that they didn't really know what to expect," Fields said. "There were cultural and language barriers with these believers from the south but their common bond was Jesus. Local believers brought clothes, food and money to the , and they were visited and comforted by their new brothers and sisters."

The provisions were made possible, Fields said, because a local evangelical association spread the word, church by church, and a committee was formed to set up a fund to help with the crisis.

"The initial fund that was put together was quite substantial, but now, 10 months into the crisis, the funds are practically finished," Fields said.

Recently she and some colleagues visited a group of IDPs to hear their stories and share gifts of rice and oil.

"It was then I found out that their daily stipend of $1 a day had been slashed to 50 cents a day per person," she said. "This was to provide for their food, clothing and supplies such as soap and health care supplies. The need had now reached emergency levels with no help in sight."

Fields and Jerry Samples*, a Southern Baptist worker in West Africa, decided to meet with the IDPs to discuss relief needs.

"In the initial meeting that and I had with two pastors representing the , we were impressed with their honest presentation of their needs; their upbeat attitude despite obvious difficulties they were facing; the way they received a small personal gift from for the work; and their thankful spirit that we had even talked to them," Samples said.

Fields explained that "though much of the north has been liberated, basic services such as police, schools and government offices have not been reopened. It is not a stable or safe environment to return to as of yet. With the local funds used up and stress levels rising, in partnership with BGR will be bringing food, support for housing and school fees to these internally displaced persons.

"... The project is just now launching, but the initial response from the leadership was a feeling overwhelmed with gratitude," Fields said. "One leader said that the timing was providential that, with their support fund finished and the stress level so high, this act of love was sent from God."

The United Nations indicates the needs in Mali will continue for quite some time. Humanitarian activities in the north are restricted because of ongoing violence and military operations and the threat of mines and other explosive remnants of war.

Fields asked for prayer for the believers to have wisdom to know when to return to their homes.

"One leader said he was in a safe place, nice by Malian standards, but still he felt like he was in prison because he was far from the comfort of his own home," she said. "He longed to return to Gao, a difficult place to live and serve, but that was where God had called him to live and work.

"Pray also for reconciliation with the believers who fled and their communities," Fields said. "Their possessions left behind were stolen and sold, their libraries burned and their worship places desecrated."

Samples challenged Southern Baptists to consider how they can assist Mali's IDPs and refugees.

Baptist relief funds are "in short supply and the needs are enormous," he said. The figures concerning IDPs change constantly. Hundreds of thousands in countries bordering Mali are wondering when they can/should return and what they will find when they do. They will need help.

"Will Baptists respond on their knees in prayer, be willing to take risks and come as volunteers ... and sacrifice financially to BGR so that we can intervene and help?"

*Name changed. William Bagsby is an IMB writer based in Europe. Resources for the Malian IDP assistance are provided by the World Hunger Fund. Donations can be made at http://world_hunger_fund. To inquire about other ways of helping displaced Malians, visit the Baptist Global Response website at www.baptistglobalresponse.com.

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