“Less than one per cent of the about 15 million inhabitants of the diocese of Maradi are Christians,” reported Bishop Ambroise Ouédraogo in an interview with ACN International. The 70-year-old cleric is the first and to date only bishop of the diocese of Maradi, one of two dioceses in Niger, a landlocked country in western Africa.

For years, the about 5,000 to 6,000 Catholics in his diocese coexisted in most part safely with the majority Muslim population, the bishop continued. “That changed in 2015, when caricatures critical of Islam published by the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo unleashed a wave of violence.” Within a few hours, at least ten Christians were killed and over 70 churches and other Christian institutions were destroyed in the numerous riots that broke out across the country. About 80 per cent of the Christian churches in the country were targeted – particularly those in the regions of Niamey and Zinder.

About 80 per cent of the Christian churches in the country were targeted.

About 80 per cent of the Christian churches in the country were targeted.

“Christians deeply feared the radical Islamic fundamentalists. And still do as time and again, at irregular intervals, incidents are directed against Christians,” reported Bishop Ouédraogo. Only two weeks ago in his diocese, the Protestant church in Maradi was set on fire by radical groups who were protesting the incarceration of an imam. He had been arrested after speaking out in his sermons against a draft law for stricter regulation of funding sources for the construction and operation of private places of worship. In spite of the demonstrations, the law was passed by parliament on Monday, June 17.

Sister Marie Catherine Kingbo.

Sister Marie Catherine Kingbo.

Sister Marie Catherine Kingbo is living eight kilometres from Maradi, the scene of the most recent attack, with her congregation, the “Fraternité des Servantes du Christ“ (Fraternity of the Servants of Christ). In an interview with ACN she said, “We expected attacks, but we did not think that they would be triggered by a draft law.” The situation in Niger has changed beyond recognition since she came to the country 15 years ago. At that time, hardly any tensions existed between the religions, she explained. “Now I hear even Muslims say that there are too many mosques and Quran schools, and not enough wells and hospitals,” Sister Catherine continued. Her congregation and the pupils that she teaches are under constant police protection for fear of Islamist attacks. “The evil that was unleashed in Libya, Syria and other countries in northern Africa and the Middle East is spreading like an accelerant here as well,” she deplored.

Sister Marie Catherine Kingbo.

Sister Marie Catherine Kingbo.

But it is not only evil that is spreading, but also good, Sister Catherine is convinced. Her religious order organises many campaigns for the benefit of society. The sisters help women in need, but also organise an encounter between Christians and Muslims each year. In 2006, the first of these interreligious conferences took place with 28 people. By 2018, the number had grown to 350. Relations with local imams and neighbours are good, Sister Catherine said. Which is why she will not even consider cutting back her efforts out of fear of extremist attacks. “We will not go. They may have guns, but we have Jesus!”

Bishop Ouédraogo feels the same way. He has never called the cooperation and dialogue with Muslims into question. “Many Muslims find the current situation absolutely disgraceful and show solidarity for the Christians,” the bishop insisted. “95 to 98 per cent of the pupils at our institutions are Muslims and Caritas also carries out projects in regions which are almost exclusively Muslim. We do not discriminate. And this will remain so.”

The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been supporting the Church in Niger for many years and has approved funding in such areas as the formation of faith and to help priests in the country secure a means of subsistence.

 

His confrere, Father Armanino told ACN: “If they reach Mali, the fear is that the abduction could be as long as that of Sister Gloria.”

“It was a swift and coordinated attack. The abductors were familiar with the movements of Father Pierluigi and had chosen him as their victim.” This was the account given by Father Mauro Armanino of the Society of the African Missions (SMA) in Niger to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about his confrere, Italian Father Pierluigi Maccalli who was abducted ten days ago, from the mission where he worked, some 125 km from the capital of Niger, Niamey.

It was a well-planned attack that took place in a matter of minutes, according to his Indian confrere, Father John, who lives and works in the same mission together with Father Maccalli. “Monday evening, Father John arrived here at our regional headquarters in Niamey, visibly traumatised”, Father Armanino told ACN. “He himself lives in another small room, just a few metres away from that of Father Pierluigi, and he told us how the abductors had simply knocked on the door, seized the priest and then left again firing shots into the air. From the way they went about it, it was clear that their target was the European priest, since otherwise they would not have left his Indian confrere behind”, he added. As a matter of fact, Father Pierluigi had only just returned from a rest period in Italy. “I myself went to meet him at the airport last Saturday. The kidnappers must have known this, which is why they acted when they did. Certainly it does not help that the government, although well aware of the presence of these armed gangs in the area, has done nothing about it.”

According to Father Armanino, one possible motive for the abduction, apart from the likelihood of a ransom demand – which has not yet become known – and the attempt to gain international media attention, is the desire to frighten the Christian community in one of the very small areas of Niger in which Christianity is the majority faith. “The fact that they have now attacked a Catholic priest for the first time, shows that there are no longer any limits to their violence”, he suggested.

Corroboration of the thesis of an anti-Christian attack has come with the fact that another small group of criminals shortly afterwards attacked the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. Fortunately, the sisters were able to elude them, some by escaping and others by hiding inside the house. “In fact it was they who were able to provide us with important information about the attackers, who were speaking in the language of the Peul ethnic group while they were ransacking the convent”, Father Armanino explained. Peul is the French name used to describe the Fulani tribesmen in Niger. Consequently, it is likely that Father Pierluigi is in the hands of the same Islamist pastoralists who have murdered thousands of people in nearby Nigeria, where they have launched numerous attacks against Christian villages and even murdered two priests in April this year.

Padre Armanino went on to explain that for the moment it is believed that the kidnappers have not yet succeeded in moving their hostage to Burkina Faso, given that the nearby frontier is very strictly patrolled. Hence it is thought that Father Pierluigi is still in Niger, but the fear is that his abductors may be able to reach Mali, where they have more support. “The group that abducted Pierluigi was a small group. But if they were to succeed in getting to Mali, the situation would be much worse for our confrere”, Father Armanino explained. For there are many other members of the Fulani community there, who would give support to his abductors. “It was in Mali of course that the Colombian religious Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti was abducted in February 2017, and she is still being held prisoner today. And so we are fearful that the abduction of Padre Pierluigi could likewise drag on for a long time.”

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT Aid to the Church in Need, VISIT http://www.churchinneed.org
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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.