NIGER: Christians’ faith strong after unprecedented violence

    The response to this violence by God’s people has been exemplary and shows great understanding of God’s ways.

Following the attacks of 16-17 January, Christians have been worshipping in tents, homes and ruined church buildings.

Since the attacks by extremist Muslims enraged by the Charlie Hebdo cover, during which over 70 church buildings were destroyed, many churches have been holding services in tents, homes and even by torchlight amidst the ruins of their church buildings (see image below). At least ten people were killed in the attacks and over 170 were injured. Many of those attending services have been sorrowful, with some weeping, while others have expressed their joy at being able to continue worshipping together. Christians’ fears have been somewhat allayed by police protection at places of worship, and they are courageously facing the future.

Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened in this nation,” wrote a missionary couple in Niamey. “Nearly every church in the capital city of Niamey was burned or looted, along with some schools and orphanages and several other churches and Christian homes throughout the nation. Last night the church members met for prayer as the pastor, who lost everything, encouraged them by flashlight to not only stand strong, but to move forward and to know that this attack will grow the church. The room was dark on the outside but illuminated by the fire in the hearts of His people, even as stones were being thrown on the roof. Our two churches in Niamey, along with the pastors’ homes, were destroyed. We also have three Bible schools that sustained various amounts of destruction. The overall damage was extensive, and there is much loss. Now begins the process of rebuilding and restoring what was lost.”

In spite of the violence, so many present at the church meeting were eager to share testimonies of God’s faithfulness during the attacks that they were asked to wait until Sunday.

In Zinder, where the violence started, there is a strong desire to overcome fear and to move forward, despite uncertainty about the future: “The messages of exhortation have encouraged Christians in their faith, in order to move forward. Because, as the Bible says, we don’t have ‘a spirit of fear and timidity, but a spirit of power and of wisdom’,” said Rev Kimso Boureima, President of the Evangelical Alliance in Niger. “Certainly this is a great trial, but Jesus promised that he will be with us until the end of time. That’s why it was necessary to bring our people back to the Scriptures, and let them apply those Scriptures in their lives, despite the difficulties of the moment.”

The Evangelical Alliance in Niger condemned the attacks but called for forgiveness: “Let us ask Christians to grant forgiveness to their relatives, neighbours and ethnic brothers who took part in these painful events.” Calling for peaceful coexistence, the Alliance expressed its “profound gratitude to all Muslims… who spontaneously brought their aid by protecting Christians, their places of worship and sheltering homeless families“.

Many people lost everything except the clothes they were wearing at the time of the attacks. The rebuilding task is huge, and Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. The missionary couple wrote, “The rebuilding task seems insurmountable. But Jesus told us that nothing is impossible to him who believes.”

On 23 January the Niger government announced a programme to rebuild the destroyed churches.

Fears of more attacks
Christian workers in Niger said there were signs that more attacks could follow. One wrote on 20 January, “There have been rumours of people going around marking Christians’ houses for further attacks. Later in the night, we received several phone calls from local Christians and missionaries that confirmed that their houses were marked. Please continue to pray for the very insecure situation in Niger.”

Archbishop Michel Cartateguy of Niamey said, “There are people going round asking, ‘Are you Allahu Akbar or are you Alleluia?’, trying to identify Christians in the city. What will they do next?

One hundred expatriate Christian workers have moved from Zinder to Niamey for security, and some have left the country.

After the attacks, which were widely condemned in Niger, President Mahamadou Issoufou called several Christian leaders together to advise him on how to restore calm.

Motives
Analysts suspect that a growth in Islamic extremist preaching in Niger, plus anger over President Issoufou’s participation in the “unity march” in Paris, contributed to the scale of the attacks. The march, which was also attended by five other African heads of state, was held on 11 January to protest against the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

The black and white jihadist flag was said to be seen flying in Zinder, for the first time in Niger. Interior Minister Massaoudou Hassoumi said he saw “Boko Haram flags” in Zinder, close to the border with northern Nigeria and about 500km west of the terrorist group’s base by Lake Chad. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video after the weekend of violence in which he said that attacks in Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon would continue.

Many suspect that the violence was pre-planned and that Charlie Hebdo was only a pretext under which to launch a highly organised attack. In Niamey and Zinder the violence appeared to have been well planned and executed: “How can one make sense of the fact that – in under two hours – more than forty churches were destroyed across the capital?” asked a spokesman for Caritas, the Catholic aid agency, on French radio.

(Morning Star News, Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, World Watch Monitor)

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