While the debate over the freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo incident in France earlier this month continued, protests over their latest cartoon depiction of a weeping Prophet Mohammed holding a sign saying, “I am Charlie,” led to violence in the West African nation of Niger. The violence that started in the country’s second city, Zinder, quickly spread to surrounding villages and finally to the capital Niamey.
At least ten people died in the two days of violence. The figure includes three Christians who were killed after they had been trapped in churches. As of January 19th, it appeared that at least 72 churches were destroyed, along with seven Christian schools, several Christian shops and as many as ten vehicles owned by Christians. Over 30 Christian homes were looted and burned, including an unknown number of parsonages, leaving those Christians with only the clothes on their backs.
It all started on January 16th, in the southeast city of Zinder following Friday prayers. Around 1:30 pm, hundreds of Muslims convened shouting ”Allah Akbar”— or “God is great”. A local source told the BBC that the protestors were armed with bows and arrows and clubs, attacking the French cultural center and properties owned by westerners in Zinder. They also attacked local Christians, destroying eight churches, twelve Christian homes and two Christian schools.
Five people died in Zinder, including one Christian. The fighting sent 300 of Zinder’s estimated 700 Christians fleeing. The tension quickly spread to other regional towns in Zinder state where churches, missionary schools and Christians’ homes were burned.
By Sunday evening, January 18th, the violence had spread to the capital Niamey. Local workers reported that a local mosque had planned to deliver a sermon about the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoon, but the government prevented it. A large crowd of about 1,000 Muslims convened outside the mosque. Guided by youth in cars and motorbikes, they set several public buildings and properties on fire, among them the headquarters of the ruling party. Security forces fired tear gas in an attempt to restore order, but the rioters were out of control.
In small groups, the protesters also attacked the Christians. “In two hours, most of the ‘work’ was done,” reported field staff. “The guides knew exactly where to find the targets, and after the attacks, they checked if [they were] indeed destroyed.”
“It seems all the churches in Niamey are on fire,” field staff reported hearing. “Rioters are going around identifying Christian homes to burn them down… Believers are running helter-skelter to avoid being attacked… [Staff] have been advised to seek refuge before it is too late.”
At the end of the day, field staff reported that five people had died in Niamey, including two Christians. When the situation had calmed some, field staff reported that in Niamey alone, 42 evangelical churches and 15 Catholic churches had been burned. They also burned five Christian schools and destroyed fifteen Christian homes, including parsonages, and burned as many as ten cars belonging to Christians.
Pastor Zakaria Jadi, whose church was among the destroyed buildings, told the BBC he was meeting with the elders when he heard about the attacks, “I just rushed and told my colleagues in the church to take away their families from the place. I took my family out from the place. When I came back, I discovered that everything was gone. There’s nothing in my house or in the church.”
In an encouraging act of solidarity, it was told that local Muslims prevented rioters from destroying churches in two villages, but most believers did not feel safe to return home.
In a television address, President Mahamadou Issoufou expressed surprise at the attack: “What have the Christians of Niger done to deserve this? Where have they wronged you?”
Associating local Christians with the Charlie Hebdo publication is incorrect, but convenient. The Charlie Hebdo saga has become an opportunity for attacking Christians in Niger—a Muslim-dominated country that has been praised for its secular government and relative tolerance towards Christians, despite the fact that more than 98% of the population follows Islam. Over the past few years, however, radicalization in the country has been growing.
“This is the greatest loss the church in Niger has suffered in recent history,” commented Open Doors’ workers. “These attacks will have long-term effects on the small community of believers. A large number of local Christian families have lost everything they have labored for their entire lives. The attacks have also caused considerable fear among the believers. Our brothers and sisters in Niger are in dire need of our prayer as they respond to this challenge.”
A local church leader, Pastor Sani Nomau called on Christians in Niger to respond with the love of Christ, “I call on every single believer in Niger to forgive and forget; to love Muslims with all their heart, to keep up the faith and to love Christ like never before. I am saying this with tears on my cheeks. Although it is painful and what we are experiencing is really difficult, we are God’s children. We must love our persecutors. We must welcome them into our houses, give them food when they are hungry and give them a drink when they are thirsty. We are called to be different. We are people of peace. Let no one seek revenge. God will strengthen us in this difficult time. Muslims in Niger, we love you with the love of Jesus Christ.”
Father, we are reminded today that the real enemy is Satan, and so we pray today for all the people of Niger. We pray for the Christians; that You will comfort, heal, protect and strengthen them to return to their homes and stand in the courage and wisdom of Christ. We pray that Your Holy Spirit will be a constant presence, filling them with Your peace. We lift before You the church leaders in Niger, and for Open Doors workers, as they seek to encourage and strengthen the church. Grant Your infinite wisdom as they consider their response to the violence. We pray for the nation of Niger as the government heals from this tragedy. Strengthen them to prevent further violence not only in Niger, but in surrounding nations, as well. We pray for the Muslims of Niger with thanksgiving for the many who supported their Christian neighbors, and with the plea that the light of Christ will shine forth from believers and lead many Muslims to turn in saving faith to Christ. We also pray for the persecutors; that You would soften their hearts to lay down their weapons and turn to You in humble repentance. In the name of Jesus, whose Name is above all names, Amen.