(WWM) Less than a week after Niger's president marched alongside dozens of world leaders in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Muslim protests in Niger have claimed the lives of 10 people and destroyed more than 70 Christian churches in the desert nation's two largest cities.
Niger, long praised for its secular government and relative tolerance towards Christians (more than 98 percent of its population are Muslim), has seen growing radicalization in recent years. In 2012, several churches in the country’s second-largest city, Zinder, were vandalized by mobs in response to a provocative video, The Innocence of Muslims. This led Open Doors to add Niger to its 2013 ranking of the 50 countries where it's most difficult to be a Christian. (Niger was removed from this year's World Watch List, although persecution levels remain virtually the same.)
The weekend protests started in Zinder on Friday (Jan. 16) and spread to surrounding areas before reaching the capital, Niamey, on Saturday.
Nigerien police say 10 people died and 45 churches burned down in the two days of violence. (Religion News Service reports the "targeted churches were mainly of the evangelical denominations built on the left bank of Niamey.")
But information gathered by World Watch Monitor (WWM) reveals that more than 70 churches have been destroyed, along with numerous Christian schools and organisations, including an orphanage. The 40 children of “The Good Samaritan,’’ run by the Assembly of God Church, are currently in ‘‘disarray’’ under the care of police.
Over 30 Christian homes were believed to be looted and burnt down. Those affected say the violence has left them with “only the clothes on our backs.”
Pastor Zakaria Jadi, whose church was among the destroyed buildings, told the BBC he was meeting with the elders when he heard about the attacks.
“I just rushed and told my colleagues in the church to take their families away from the place. I took my family out from the place… When I came back, I just discovered that everything has gone. There's nothing in my house and also nothing in the church.”
All started in Zinder, where latest figure show that 8 churches and 12 Christian homes were set on fire. Two Christian schools were also attacked and ransacked.
The violence sent some 300 Christians (out of 700 in the city) to take refuge in army barracks. Some of them have started to get back into their homes, local sources told WWM.
“This is the greatest loss the Church in Niger has suffered in recent history. These attacks will have long-term effects on the small community of believers," commented a worker for Open Doors International. "A large number of local Christian families have lost everything they have laboured for their entire lives. The attacks have also caused considerable fear among the believers. Our brothers and sisters in Niger are in dire need of our prayer as they respond to this challenge.”
The tension quickly spread to other towns in the Zinder region.
“In Gouré, the town’s only church is on fire,” a witness reported as the situation unfolded. All Christian homes were burned and all the believers were taken into the military barracks for protection. In Tanout, the protesters burned down two evangelical churches; in Magaria, they destroyed one church.
In Birnin Gaouré, about 100 km from Niamey, three churches were set on fire and a missionary school was attacked.In Maradi, another of Niger’s main towns, close to the Nigeria border, two evangelical churches were eventually burned down, while a small Fulani church in Bermo village (200 km from Maradi, in the north) was attacked and burned down. Local sources have told WWM that the prompt reactions of security forces helped to limit the destruction.