Christians in Niger are joyfully meeting in homes under police protection as they plan to rebuild church buildings and houses after attacks last weekend that were unprecedented in scale.
“Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened in this nation,” wrote one missionary couple in the capital, 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.”
Muslims protesting the depiction of the prophet of Islam in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo destroyed 72 church buildings and killed at least 10 people in attacks that began in Zinder on Jan. 16 and hit Niamey the next day, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. A church leader put the total of ruined church structures at 68, and a final count remained uncertain.
Analysts suspect a growing amount of Islamic extremist preaching, coupled with political rivals fanning flames of furor over Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou participating in a unity march in Paris against the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo offices, contributed to the scale of the attacks. More than 170 people were reported to have been injured.
“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,” wrote the missionary couple to concerned partners. “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.”
Christians in Niger praise God in spite of church building gutted in attacks in Niamey. (Christi Childs courtesy of Christian Aid Mission)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, they added.
“Our two churches in Niamey, along with the pastors’ homes, were destroyed,” they wrote. “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.”
The Rev. Mai’aki Kadaidai, president of the Evangelical Church in the Niger Republic (EERN), told Morning Star News by phone that attacks on Christians and churches were spread across five regions and the capital.
“This is the first time we are witnessing violence of this magnitude against the church and Christians,” Kadaidai said. “In all, 68 churches were destroyed across five regions of Agadez, Damagaram, Diffa, Maradi, Zinder, and in our country’s capital city of Niamey. The Muslim rioters destroyed five of our [EERN] churches, destroyed four homes of our pastors and many of our members were adversely affected.”
Abubakar Shekau, leader of extremist group Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria, released a video after the unrest saying attacks in Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon would continue. Native Christian workers in Niger aided by Christian Aid Mission, which assists ministries based in the country, said there were signs that more attacks could follow.
“There have been rumors of people going around marking Christians’ houses for further attacks,” a ministry leader native to Niger wrote on Tuesday (Jan. 20), according to Christian Aid Mission. “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.”
A Christian leader in Niamey said 46 Protestant church buildings and 15 Catholic worship sites in the capital were burned, according to Christian Aid Mission. At least three Christians killed in the attacks were trapped inside church buildings.
Attacks began on Jan. 16 in Zinder with the destruction of several church buildings and Christian-owned homes. Several other towns suffered damages as the violence spread to the capital by the next day, with angry Muslims also looting shops, attacking police stations, bars and hotels, and ransacking businesses that were either of French origin or owned by non-Muslims.
Charlie Hebdo had published a cover cartoon of Muhammad carrying a sign with the slogan (“I am Charlie”) that signified solidarity with free speech and the 12 victims of the shooting deaths by two Islamic terrorists at the magazine’s offices on Jan. 7. Depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in most branches of Islam, and prominent schools of Islamic jurisprudence prescribe death for defaming him.
Muslims make up about 98 percent of Niger’s population and have lived in relative peace with the country’s miniscule (0.3 percent) Christian minority. In spite of growing Islamic extremist elements within the country, few in Niger expected to hear the chants of “Kill the infidels, kill the Christians,” as protestors ransacked the nation. Niger was unranked on Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians.
The president of Niger called several Christian leaders together to give him counsel on how to restore calm after the devastation on Saturday (Jan. 17), pastors said.
The amount of damages has yet to be calculated, but the missionary couple said rough initial estimates of repairs needed for their ministries would total more than $45,300.
“Our first priority is to take care of the needs of our pastors and their families,” they wrote. “They both lost almost everything.”
Preliminary estimates of damages to their pastors’ properties were $23,000; church properties, $16,000; and Bible school property, $6,300. Further building repairs were yet to be determined. Those wishing to contribute for repairs can do so at http://runintl.org.
“The estimates are still coming in, and in a country considered one of the poorest in the world, the rebuilding task seems insurmountable,” they wrote. “But Jesus told us that nothing is impossible to him who believes.”