A year has passed since the churches in the West African country of Niger experienced the worst attacks in their history, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
On the weekend of 16-17 January 2015, hundreds of angry Islamists ransacked more than 100 Christian properties and churches; shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is the greatest”). Ten people lost their lives in the violence.
The reconstruction has taken time, but it has now officially begun, after two ceremonies in which cornerstones were put in place. The first was held at the EERN church, (Evangelical Church of the Niger Republic) in the northern district of Boukoki 2, in the capital Niamey. The second took place hours later at the Baptist “Roundabout” church, in the heart of the city.
The ceremonies, attended by dozens, were chaired by the President of the Evangelical Alliance in Niger, Bishop Kimso Boureima.
“We are pleased to officially kick off the reconstruction of both churches. This is really the expression of the faithfulness and goodness of God and of his Church,” he said. “Whether at the EERN or at the Baptist church, people were very encouraged.”
The two churches are among the worst affected, and also among the most iconic in the capital. Established in 1929, the Baptist church has long symbolised the presence of Protestant Christianity in Niger. It is difficult to visit the city centre without noticing the building. Over the years, it has hosted generations of all geographic and social origins: students, diplomats and businessmen – both expatriates and Nigeriens. On 17 January, this church was among the first targeted by demonstrators.
For a year, it was left abandoned and had become a source of curiosity for passers-by and a hide-out for idlers.
The EERN church is the largest building in the capital. It also symbolised the emergence of a national church attended exclusively by Nigeriens, as Christianity is often associated with foreigners.
But now both new church buildings will be bigger and even more visible, and they will be equipped with modern facilities.
The reconstruction work, due to last a year, is being funded by the US-based Samaritan’s Purse. Other reconstruction work is planned in Zinder, Niger’s second city, where the violence began on 16 January last year, before spreading to the rest of the country. The violence led around 300 Christians in Niamey (almost half the Christian population in the city) to take refuge in the army barracks.
The commemorative ceremonies have also been marked by a service of thanksgiving, attended by all the Protestant and Evangelical churches, preceded by three days of prayer and fasting – from 14-17 January.
“We have chosen to celebrate this commemoration to express our gratitude for what the Lord has done so far,” said Bishop Boureima. “Since the first day of the attacks, we have proclaimed that the Church has forgiven. We must turn the page of the past and look forward. These events came to prepare us for further persecution.”
On 16-17 January, 2015, it was Niger’s churches that were particularly targeted in widespread violence. The motive was said to be anger at the presence of Niger’s President, Mahamadou Issoufou, and five other African heads of state in Paris on 11 January, in what was perceived to be support for an anti-religious magazine. The “memorial” issue of Charlie Hebdo, showing the Prophet Muhammad weeping, reinforced this anger and triggered protests, which quickly turned into anti-Christian violence.
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There were mixed emotions during the two ceremonies. Some church attendees were full of joy to witness the beginning of the reconstruction, while others could barely hide their sorrow; particularly those who witnessed the recent demolition works of the old buildings.
“The laying down of the first cornerstone brings us great relief,” said Ayeko Jerome, pastor of the Baptist church. “Those who set fire to the church have failed in their evil plan. We are encouraging the people of God to remain strong in their faith, and to persevere in sharing the Good News, which alone can change hearts.”
Priscille, 23, a student and member of the Baptist church’s choir, added: “The destruction [of the church] by the bulldozer has brought back the older memories of January last year, following the attack. It was truly painful. I cried a lot because our church was well known by all in the capital, but now we will no longer see it again. I have lost my choir costume, the one I wore for years. The choir has lost some instruments, which are irreplaceable.”
Elisabeth Abdoulaye, a member of the EERN church in her sixties, said she was devastated to witness the demolition of her old building.
“I shed hot tears when they burned the church last year,” she said. “This weekend, I could not prevent myself from bursting into tears when the bulldozer first hit the church’s walls. I thought I could stand the shock, but it was too emotional. I am very attached to this church, which I will surely miss forever.”
Anger and sorrow
Niger’s authorities pledged to support the reconstruction effort in rebuilding damaged and destroyed churches and properties. On 2 July, 2015, the government announced that it had committed 300 million CFA (about US$500,000), but the sum has yet to materialise.
This reinforced the feeling that, as the emotion of the first days passed, the reconstruction of churches is no longer of particular interest to political leaders, more concerned with preparations for elections next month.
Christians comprise a small fraction of the 17 million population and are therefore not considered a decisive factor in the elections. This was emphasised when no political leaders attended the church ceremonies.
In October 2015, the Evangelical Alliance said that it no longer required financial aid from the government, saying it would “rather rely on its own resources and the generosity of people of good will to carry out these efforts of reconstruction”.
Dozens of people were arrested as part of the investigation carried out by the police into last year’s attacks. But according to a local church leader, who wanted to remain anonymous, those arrested are just young demonstrators and idlers.
“They are just small fry, while the masterminds of the attacks are still on the loose,” he said. “Though we have forgiven, we want to shed light on what happened: it’s a matter of social justice. And we hope that the government will take the necessary measures to prevent the repetition of such events.”