NIGER: Is there a danger of renewed anti-Christian riots?

NIGER: Coronavirus pandemic – Is there a danger of renewed anti-Christian riots, as happened after the “Charlie-Hebdo” incident?

Covid-19 has become a global phenomenon, affecting the whole planet. However, while the fight against it is continuing in the hospitals and laboratories of many countries, in other countries the healthcare crisis is being exacerbated by grave social issues. Niger is one such country. Although the political and administrative authorities have taken rapid measures to combat the spread of the virus, it is not proving easy to persuade certain groups of the necessity of these measures.

96% of the population of Niger are Muslims. On 12 April the civil authorities banned public prayers and gatherings in all mosques and churches. In fact, well before this decision was taken the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Burkina and Niger had advised all the Catholic dioceses to suspend public Sunday and daily Masses, as well as prayer meetings in the suburbs and other places, in order to avoid the spread of contagion.

However, some Muslim groups, led by extremist imams, are not being quite so cooperative in applying the protection measures against the pandemic. Local sources close to the Catholic Church have told the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that in addition to the disturbances in the capital 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 and attacked and vandalised government buildings, setting fire to the 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 on account of the danger, 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, and called on some of the police in Maradi to strengthen the security within the city and around the Catholic mission there. The city was overwhelmed with the smell of burning tyres and teargas. 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 over 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 maintains. “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.” But despite his confidence in the government, he warns “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!”

The coordinating committee, representing the government in Maradi and the authorities from the political, administrative, religious and traditional spheres, meets once a week. According to the bishop, “the civil authorities are making admirable efforts to check the damage done by the coronavirus, with information and awareness-raising campaigns, informing people about the epidemic, the hygiene measures to be adopted and, above all, the importance of avoiding big gatherings and meetings.” However, this last aspect is proving extremely difficult, “because the markets are vital to people’s daily survival, which results in big crowds and facilitates the spread of the virus.”

“Similarly it is difficult to control the frontier with Nigeria, given its sheer length. The state doesn’t have the resources to set up healthcare facilities to test for the virus at every single border entry point into Niger”, Bishop Ouédraogo explains. 

With the most stubbornly resistant of the Muslim groups, the authorities are carrying out a special information campaign in order to help them understand the reason for the directives that have been implemented in order to save human lives, one source explained to ACN.

On 29 April the country recorded 709 positive cases of the virus, 31 deaths and 403 people who had recovered. But the experts agree that these figures need to be approached with great caution, since the healthcare system in the country simply does not have the necessary means to accurately measure the number of people who have caught the virus. This is a problem already well-known to European countries and clearly still more acute in the countries of Africa.

A new “post-coronavirus” Pentecost?

On the ecclesial and pastoral level, Bishop Ambroise 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 19 March, the 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 the lukewarm Christians, however, this could be the end.”

Nonetheless, even on this point, the bishop of this small flock radiates optimism: “Let us prepare ourselves for the feast of Pentecost and for the birth of a newer and more charismatic Church, 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!”