In Niger, in time of the virus, fears of anti-Christian violence

COVID-19 is affecting the whole world. However, while the fight against it is continuing in hospitals and laboratories of many countries, in some nations the healthcare crisis is being exacerbated by grave social issues. Niger is one example. Although the political and administrative authorities have taken rapid measures to combat the spread of the virus, it is not proving easy to persuade some groups of the necessity of these measures.

The population of Niger is 96 percent Muslim. On April  12, 2020, the civil authorities banned public prayers and gatherings in all mosques and churches. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Burkina and Niger had already advised all the dioceses to suspend public Sunday and daily Masses, as well as prayer meetings in the suburbs and other places.

Family prayer in Niger

However, some Muslim groups, led by extremist imams, are not abiding by the protection measures. Local sources close to the Catholic Church have told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that in addition to disturbances in the capital of Niamey, people in the town of Meyahi, which is not far from Maradi, the second largest city in the country, took to the streets to protest against the ban on Friday prayers. They attacked and vandalized government buildings, setting fire to a local school and university.

At the same time, another local source in the Zinder region, in the southeast of the country, who prefers to remain anonymous, confirmed to ACN the hostile reaction of groups of outraged Muslims: “There were disturbances, first of all around 10 miles from the town of Zinder, and then in the town itself. Fortunately, the authorities responded rapidly this time—in order to avoid any repetition of the fateful events of January 2015—calling on some of the police in Maradi to strengthen the security within the city, including around the Catholic mission there. The city was overwhelmed with the smell of burning tires and tear gas. However, the Catholic mission was undamaged.”

Nonetheless, all these incidents have created a climate of great fear among the small Catholic community here, who still remember what happened five years ago, when more than 45 Christian churches were attacked and burned in Niger in reaction to the publication of the ‘Mohammed cartoons’ in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Bishop Ambroise Ouédraogo of Maradi does not think there will be a repeat of those events, however. “The situation with the coronavirus is different from the Charlie Hebdo incident, because this is neither a religious nor a political conflict,” he said. “In 2015, the political opposition was looking for a way of stirring up an uprising in order to be able to overthrow the government of the day, and the Church was a handy scapegoat. But I believe that with the coronavirus they will not venture to attack the Christians in the same way.”

Yet, despite his confidence in the government, the bishop warned that “we have to be on our guard, nonetheless, as the reactions of the fundamentalist Muslim extremists are unpredictable. But I am counting on them not going that far!”

On the ecclesial and pastoral level, Bishop Ouédraogo is already beginning to think about the “post-coronavirus era.” As a result of the lockdown imposed on the churches and the Christian communities in Niger since March 19, Christians are now praying at home within their families. “Inevitably, this period of lockdown will have repercussions on the lives and the faith of our Christians, both positive and negative. There will be a before and an after. For some, being unable to take part in the Eucharistic celebration will deepen their desire and thirst for God and for union and communion with him and with their community. For lukewarm Christians, however, this could be the end.”

Still, the bishop remains optimistic, saying: “Let us prepare ourselves for the feast of Pentecost and for the birth of a newer and more charismatic Church that is open to the world! Let us dare to allow ourselves to be lifted up by the breath of the Holy Spirit, who wishes to make new men and women of us for a new world of love, peace, justice and forgiveness!”

—Maria Lozano