In Niger, witnessing Christ’s love to Muslims
Mother Marie-Catherine Kingbo is Superior General of the Fraternity of the Servants of Christ in Niger. She spoke late last month at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, during the “Night of the Witnesses,” an annual initiative of the French office of Aid to the Church in Need, the international Catholic charity.
By Mother Marie-Catherine Kingo
It is early January 2015. Everywhere the media are full of the Mohammed cartoons [that triggered the terrorist attack on] the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and tension is mounting in Niger. On Jan. 16 and 17, incensed Muslim demonstrators start to attack churches and schools, convents and religious houses, as well as individual Christians.
The most seriously affected regions were those of Zinder and Niamey. And the fires are also burning in Maradi and in other regions. We, the Catholic religious sisters who have been established here in Niger since 2006, prepared ourselves for the worst.
In some countries of Africa, people associate Christianity with the West. In some of the villages of Niger, people even thought I must have been white at birth, because I was Catholic! As you can see, what you do in the West has an impact on us Christians here—and all the more so since the population of Niger is 98 percent Muslim!
During this time of suffering and uncertainty my daily prayer is inspired by these words of the Prophet Micah: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me.” Yes, these people who have benefited from so much care, education and love from the Catholic Church in Niger—who have come knocking on our doors, day and night, asking for food and help in their poverty—these are the same people who have now turned against us, throwing stones at us, burning our churches and trying to prevent us from wearing a cross.
Had it not been for the intervention of the police during that month of January 2015, we would not have been spared. In the community of which I am the Superior General we were a group of 20 or so sisters and novices. Some were afraid. So I put this question to them: Do you want to leave or remain here? Not one of them left, despite their fear and insecurity. We remained barricaded inside the convent, unable to attend Mass, for three weeks. We adored [the Blessed Sacrament] and prayed as usual. I trusted in God, and in the people whom we are helping.
It has been 11 years since I came from Senegal to help the people of Niger, as God asked of me. One day in 2005, as I was following a course in Islam, I understood how the Muslims see Christ. Not as the Son of God, who died on the cross and was raised, but as a simple prophet. I was astonished, because they did not know this God of love and goodness.
It was if I was being challenged by Christ in these words: “Now that you know this, make my true face known in a Muslim environment.” That was how the Lord asked me to be his witness. The place of this mission came to me clearly in the course of my prayer: “Set out for Niger.”
In 2006, I left Senegal to begin my new mission, accompanied by a young Senegalese postulant, and we founded the first indigenous religious congregation there, the “Fraternité des Servantes du Christ (Fraternity of the Servants of Christ),” with the approval of the diocesan bishop.
The objective was to show forth the tender face of the Lord—not to compel Muslims to become Christians. We began by going through the villages, talking to the local people in order to get to know them better. We soon became aware of the precarious existence of a large proportion of the people, especially the women and the children. Something had to be done to remedy the situation.
For example, we met Absou, age 27, a mother of six children, a blind husband and no work. We invited her to come to our nutrition and healthcare center for children and expectant mothers. We also discovered that young girls are sometimes given in marriage as young as 11 or 12, and that some of them die in giving birth to their first child.
We decided to organize educational sessions for the mothers and young women, for the village chiefs, the young boys and the imams. We also wanted to get them to think about the radicalization of some of the young people, the preaching of some of the imams who incite people to violence, and the consequences of the actions perpetrated by terrorists around the world.
In 2007, our first session for the imams and village chiefs was attended by 24 participants. It was incredible; we had never imagined that the people would respond to the appeal of a woman, a religious and a stranger! The most remarkable thing happened when I asked the question, “Are you not bothered by a religious, a foreigner and a Catholic challenging your way of thinking?”
One person gave me this surprising and encouraging reply: “What unites us is neither religion, nor ethnicity, but love.” So without knowing it, this man was already talking about God. Currently we have more than a 100 imams and village chiefs attending these educational sessions every year.
Today, indeed, the local mentality has changed very much for the better. One Nigerian woman, a former Muslim, has joined our community and wants to become a nun! At age 15 she felt the desire to turn to Christ, to convert and to enter into the consecrated life. She was at first rejected by her family, who no longer wanted to have any contact with her—but her relatives came round in the end and accepted her again.
There is even a Muslim dignitary in our district who has entrusted his seven-year-old daughter to us; this father wants his daughter to become a boarder and a Catholic. Her faith has begun to awaken in her, and she is currently attending our pre-school
But in many hearts there is still some way to go. Last December, a group of young men violently harangued one of our workers, just because he was working for us, the sisters. More than once we have been subjected to stones thrown on our roof during evening prayers.
One Christmas Day, outside the doors of our convent, some children came to shout insults at us. To protect us from such aggression, since October 2014, we have had two policeman posted 24 hours a day at the entrance to our convent, ever since the fall of 2014.
We, the sisters of the Fraternité des Servantes du Christ, who all come from different backgrounds—from Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and from Chad—have left everything in order to reveal the true face of the Lord, who is only LOVE. We draw our strength from these words of Christ: “I am with you all days, even until the end of the world.”