MBALE, Uganda — Sleeping on a hospital bed at Budaka Health Center in eastern Uganda, 12-year-old Emmanuel Nyaiti writhed in pain as he explained how Muslim extremists attacked him for refusing to convert to Islam.
” ‘Islam is a good religion,’ they said. ‘Please convert. We’ll not kill you, and you will go to paradise,” the boy recalled.
Emmanuel is one among millions of Christians in this East African nation who face unprecedented levels of persecution from Islamist extremists.
Christians in eastern Uganda are among those in their faith who face the most serious dangers in the world, according to World Watch Monitor, a group that tracks persecutions of Christians. The charity counted at least two incidents of Muslims killing Christians as well as vandalism of at least two churches.
Emmanuel was walking home from his grandmother’s house when four men ambushed him and spirited him to a cassava plantation, where they tortured him and attempted to strangle him. One was named Ali and another was Abdul, he said. They wound up leaving him for dead.
“Ali convinced me to convert and become a Muslim, but I declined. They started pushing me on the ground threatening to kill me if I don’t accept Islam,” he said. “One of the attackers hit me with a sharp object on my neck, and I became unconscious. I remember them saying they have killed me.”
Concentrated largely in the country’s east, Muslims comprise about 14 percent of Uganda’s primarily Christian population of 42 million. But the numbers — and the clout that comes with them — are in dispute.
More than 1.6 million Anglicans and almost 800,000 Catholics converted to Islam, Pentecostal Christianity or traditional African beliefs, according to the 2014 Ugandan census, the most recent survey, which did not break down which faiths receive which converts.
Muslims say their community is growing fast.
“Muslims are 25 percent of the total population and not 13.7 percent,” Hajj Mutumba, a spokesman of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, told local media. “We have two to four wives, and we are producing about six children in a space of two to three years.”
In eastern Uganda, Islamist extremists have intensified their campaign to convert more people to Islam.
Many of those extremists belong to the Alliance of Democratic Forces, a Congo-based group of Muslim Ugandans who have fought an insurgency against their country’s central government in Kampala, noted World Watch Monitor. The alliance has helped stoke anti-Christian feelings in the region while calling for Islam-based Shariah law to be practiced in Uganda.
“Ugandan Muslims were not intolerant in the past,” the World Watch Monitor survey said. “But those who sympathize with ADF are preaching the idea of having an Islamic state in Uganda (and in a part of the DRC), and this is taking away the culture of tolerance.”
In June, a group of Muslims attacked Christian preachers in eastern Uganda during a “crusade,” where Christians publicly profess their faith and invite others to join.
Muslims in the town accused the Christians of mocking Islam by publicly saying Jesus was the son of God.
“They became very angry and began throwing rocks at Christians, chanting ‘Allah akbar,’ ” said pastor Moses Saku. “Many Christians were injured during the incident.”
Such altercations have become increasingly common, the pastor said.
“I witnessed an incident here where a Christian woman was brutally attacked with a machete by her Muslim husband for refusing to convert to Islam,” said Mr. Saku. “We continue to condemn the incident and urge our Muslim brothers to respect other religions and uphold freedom of worship.”
Muslims dismissed the allegations and said they warned their Christians neighbors not to make provocative statements that offend them. “We have now declared a jihad against them,” said Abubakar Yusuf, 55, a Muslim teacher. “We are not going to allow anybody to despise Islamic teachings at their church or crusade. We will seek revenge.”
Mr. Saku and millions of other Christians across Uganda are now demanding government protection.
“We cannot continue to live in fear of preaching the Gospel and telling people the truth that Jesus is the son of God,” he said. “As Christians, we need protection from the government because our Muslim brothers are very angry when they hear the truth. But we have never abused Muslims or Allah during our preaching.”
Police said they were investigating the details and circumstances behind attacks on the churches, crusades and people using provocative statements against others.
Mr. Saku said police need to make some arrests to scare Muslims who are attacking Christians. “They need to arrest these people,” he said. “We cannot live like refugees in our own country where we cannot worship and preach the Gospel freely.”