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Niger Christians ‘living in fear’ after Islamist attacks

Niger troops stand guard outside the central prison at Niamey, Niger, after an attack by armed gunmen in early June (Photo: PA)

The head of the Catholic Church in Niger has warned that much of Africa’s Sahel region is facing a “coordinated Islamist campaign” that is leaving Christian communities “living in anxiety and fear.”

Archbishop Michel Cartateguy of Niamey said attacks by Islamist rebels have so far been limited to non-religious targets, but that the well-coordinated actions are sending clear messages to non-Muslims.

“It’s clear these actions are all closely organised. Strong links already exist between Islamist groups in several countries and a network is forming,” the archbishop said, speaking after the episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Djalwana Laurent Lompo, the country’s first Niger-born bishop.

“We thought the Islamists had been dispersed earlier this year in northern Mali. But they merely regrouped in southern Libya and intervened elsewhere,” he added.

The ordination went forward amid fears of a pending attack by the rebels. A member of the Society of African Missions, Archbishop Cartateguy said that he had requested an auxiliary because he is unable to visit parts of Niger out of fear of being abducted because he is a French national.

He said the rebels’ anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiments are partially a backlash against the legalisation of same-sex marriage in France, the region’s principal former colonial power.

“France congratulated itself on its intervention in Mali, but it also bears a heavy responsibility for what’s happening today,” the church leader said.

“The presence of foreign forces here has worsened the violence by failing to respect the region’s culture. Muslims have been quick to connect Christianity with the West, so the Islamist campaign looks set to intensify.

“Christian communities are living in anxiety and fear. It’s the first time Islamist militants have come into the open on such a scale.

“Catholics have always been well accepted by ordinary Muslims here. But integrist movements have begun to agitate and preach against Christianity and the West, and this is something new.”

Niger’s 25,000 Catholics comprise a small fraction of the country’s mostly Muslim population of 19 million, and include immigrants from other West African countries, including Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast.

As many as 4,000 people attended the ceremony for Bishop Lompo in Niamey’s Sports Palace after three days of prayer in parishes throughout the 77,000 square-mile archdiocese.

However, Archbishop Cartateguy said, preparations for the event were marred by the freeing of 22 inmates from the city’s prison in an attack by armed men on June 1 which left three prison guards dead. The government of President Mahamadou Issoufou blamed the attack on Islamists from the Boko Haram movement in neighbouring Nigeria.

Muslim leaders sent large delegations to Bishop Lompo’s ordination from Niamey and Maradi, the country’s second largest Catholic diocese, but a substantial police presence was needed to ensure security, the archbishop said.

The prison attack followed suicide car bombings at a military barracks at Agadez and French-run uranium mine at Arlit, which left 36 dead.

The Associated Press said a Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and al-Qaida-linked Signed-in-Blood Battalion had claimed joint responsibility for the attacks in retaliation for Niger’s support of French intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali in January.

Islamists are also suspected of involvement in a June 11 attack on a paramilitary barracks on the outskirts of Niamey.

The violence in Niger follows a wave of Islamist-linked attacks from Nigeria to Kenya, and a March takeover of the Central African Republic by Seleka, an Islamist-led rebel alliance, which includes Arab-speaking Muslims.