“They set fire to our churches, but our hearts are still ablaze out of love for them.”
The violent outbursts against Christians in Niger are incomprehensible to Bishop Ambroise Ouédraogo – and yet he still wants to work together with the Muslims
Six months after the riots against Christians in Niger, the fear of violence is great among Catholics, but at the same time the Catholic parishes are as lively as ever. The Bishop of the Nigerien diocese of Maradi, Ambroise Ouédraogo, said this recently (July 6) when talking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) at the headquarters of the international pastoral charity in Königstein.
One week after the terrorist attack on the editorial offices of the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” (January 7, 2015) there were violent assaults on Christians and Christian churches in the capital of Niger, Niamey, and in the second largest city of the country, Zinder (diocese of Maradi). Except for the cathedral of Niamey and a church in the outskirts of the capital, all churches in Niger were looted, ravaged and set fire to. One of the churches destroyed had only been consecrated in November 2014.
The shock was great. After all, up to this point Christians and Muslims had lived together in peace in this West African country. Bishop Ouédraogo still can’t understand it: “Why did they attack us, especially since we have had such a good mutual understanding?” The only possible explanation he believes is: “They mixed up ‘Charlie Hebdo’ with Christianity.” For those who torched and ravaged the Churches it was Christians who drew the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the view of Bishop Ouédraogo, the Nigerien Christians are “collateral victims.” His message to the people of Europe is therefore: “Freedom of the press in Europe is fine. But you have to handle this freedom with caution and be aware of the impact it will have in other countries. Europe is not Africa and Africa is not Europe,” according to Ouédraogo. “The sensitivities in Africa are different from those in Europe.”
“Living communities have emerged and I believe that is a blessing.”
God wants happiness for all
Fearing further attacks, about 200 Christians from Zinder had fled to the neighbouring countries Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin and even Nigeria, Bishop Ouédraogo reported. Most of them have since returned. The Catholics come together for Holy Mass in the open or in halls which they do up and decorate themselves for the Masses. The terrible events have strengthened their faith, according to Ouédraogo. “Living communities have emerged and I believe that is a blessing.”
Many Muslims don’t know how they should conduct themselves towards Christians after the attacks. “They’re out of their depth,” said Bishop Ouédraogo. “They are sorry for what happened, but they can’t say it officially.”
Many Muslims were amazed that the Catholic bishops forgive those who caused them suffering. “They set fire to our churches, but our hearts are still ablaze out of love for them. Christian or Muslim – God wishes good fortune for all people.”
It is still not clear as far as the Bishop is concerned who destroyed the churches. “But this is not the time to accuse anyone.” In matters of education and charity the Nigerien Catholics continue to work together with the Muslims in the interreligious commission. After all, Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, faces many challenges. The majority of the Nigerien population regularly face life-threatening periods of drought and famine – including at the present time. Niger is an Islamic state and 98 per cent of the 17 million inhabitants are adherents of Islam. There is a small Catholic community of about 21,000 faithful living in 2 dioceses.
“We pray for all those who help us”
Aid to the Church in Need supported the pastoral work of the country in 2014 to the tune of $117,500. This was used to support the extension of a convent and the construction of one of the churches which had been destroyed in January. Three sisters were awarded stipends and a grant was given to summer youth camps.
Bishop Ouédraogo is grateful to all those who support the Nigerien Catholics with their prayers and donations. “Our cry for help was heard in the western world. We pray for all those who help us.”
Immediately after the attacks in January Aid to the Church in Need gave $41,850 as emergency aid for the victims. Bishop Ouédraogo and the faithful in Niger were moved by this spontaneous support.