Niger's Christians live in fear after deadly attacks

Boureima Hama

Niamey (AFP) - The religious violence that engulfed Niger last week has traumatised the country's Christian community, with many living in fear of further persecution.

The burnt-out shells of churches reveal the extent of the looting, arson and desecration in the predominantly Muslim country.

"They are looking for Christians. They burned everything with any Christian symbols on it, whether Catholic or Evangelical," said one churchgoer in the southern city of Zinder, the second largest in Niger.

On January 16, protests against the publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed by the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo turned deadly in Zinder, leaving five people dead and 45 wounded. All but one of the city's churches were burned to the ground.

In the capital Niamey, the following day, another five people died and 173 were injured in further violence.

A total of 45 churches were torched in the capital, along with an orphanage and a Christian school.

"What will become of the Christians?" asks the Reverend Boureima Kimso, head of the Alliance of the Evangelical Churches in Niger (AMEEN)

The impoverished land-locked country in West Africa has a population of 17 million people. Of those, ninety-eight percent are Muslims and the remaining two percent, around 350,000, are divided between Christians and animists.

The AMEEN group called on Christians to forgive the attackers, despite the "strong feelings of resentment" of a community made to feel like "refugees in their own country".

Jack, a mechanic, survived the violence holed up with his employees in his workshop in the capital.

"We are living in fear," he said. "Many Christians won't sleep in their own homes for fear of being attacked."

- 'Allahu Akbar or Alleluia' -

Those who witnessed the attacks cannot get rid of the images of youths methodically destroying their places of worship, before setting them on fire.

"We are re-living Jesus' agony," Michel Cartateguy, the archbishop of Niamey, told Vatican Radio. "This could continue if we are not protected."

"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?" he added.

Protests have erupted in several Muslim countries after the Charlie Hebdo weekly published Mohammed cartoons in its "survivors' issue" on January 21, a week after 12 people were killed in an attack by Islamist gunmen on its Paris offices.

The two masked gunmen said they were avenging previous publications of cartoons depicting the prophet by the irreverent magazine.

To many Muslims, any depiction of Islam's prophet as blasphemous.

In Niger the Muslim and Christian communities had been living in peace.

Even during the attacks many Muslims helped their Christian neighbours.

"My sister, who is Muslim, hid 20 people in her house for two days before handing them over to the protection of the police," said Fleur, a Christian whose restaurant was "ransacked and looted".

Around 20 ulemas and Muslim theologians called for calm on public television.

"Don't forget that Islam is against violence," Muslim elder Yaou Sonna said last weekend on state television.

"I urge men and women, boys and girls to calm down."

Niger's Interior minister Massaoudou Hassoumi was the first to say that he had seen "Boko Haram flags" in Zinder suggesting that the Islamist group was behind the violence in the city, given its proximity to Nigeria where the armed militants have been launching attacks.

The Zinder churchgoer said there was no question about the "influence" of jihadist groups on Niger given their presence in neighbouring Nigeria.

Between 300 and 400 Christians took shelter in two military camps in Zinder over the weekend.

Those who remain in their homes are anticipating further attacks amid Muslim calls for those detained in the aftermath of last week's violence to be freed.