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By BosNewsLife Africa Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and Linda Bordoni
VATICAN CITY/NIAMEY (BosNewsLife)-- Pope Francis has appealed for "peace and reconciliation" in Niger where anti-Christian violence killed at least 15 people and more than 70 churches were reportedly torched in what believers called the "greatest loss" in the African nation's recent church history.
Speaking at his weekly General Audience, Francis explicitly referred to brutalities against Christians, including children, and churches.
Pope Francis invited those present at his audience to join him in praying for the victims of the recent violence in Niger, which erupted last weekend. "Let us invoke the Lord", he added, "for the gift of reconciliation and peace" and may “religious sentiment never give rise to violence, oppression and destruction”.
Police initially said some 45 churches were destroyed, but Christians said the number was more than 70. Numerous Christian schools and organisations, including an orphanage, were also targeted.
Protests erupted January 16 following he publication in France of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting Islam’s prophet.
The cartoon showed a crying Prophet Mohammed with the words "All is forgiven" and "I am Charlie" in French.
Christians said however that radical Muslims were looking for an excuse to attack them, as associating local believers with the Charlie Hebdo publication "is incorrect, but convenient".
Just as a Danish cartoonist mocking Prophet Mohammed "created an opportunity for Muslims to unleash terror on Christians in Northern Nigeria in February 2006", the "Charlie Hebdo saga has become an opportunity for attacking Christians in Niger," commented the news agency of Christian aid and advocacy group Open Doors International.
The agency, WWM, said among those targeted are also 40 children of the orphanage “The Good Samaritan" run by the Assembly of God Church who are currently in "disarray under the care of police."
It claimed over 30 Christian homes were believed to be looted and burnt down. Those affected say the violence has left them with only the clothes on our backs.
“I just rushed and told my colleagues in the church to take their families away from the place," said Pastor Zakaria Jadi, whose church was among the destroyed buildings. He said he was meeting with church elders when he heard about the attacks.
"I took my family out from the place…When I came back, I just discovered that everything has gone. There's nothing in my house and also nothing in the church.”
Violence erupted January 16 in the southeast city of Zinder, where Christians said eight churches and twelve Christian homes were set on fire. Two Christian schools were also attacked and ransacked.
The violence reportedly forced some 300 Christians, nearly half the city's Christian population of 700, to take refuge in army barracks.
In Maradi, another of Niger’s main towns, close to the Nigeria border, two Evangelical churches were eventually burned down, while a small Fulani church in Bermo village, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north from Maradi was attacked and torched, Christians said.
Elsewhere in Birnin Gaouré, about 100 kilometers outside the capital Niamey, three churches were set on fire and a missionary school was attacked, reported the news agency of Christian aid and advocacy group Open Doors International.
The agency, World Watch Monitor (WWM) said clashes spread to the northern town of Agadez, but crowds failed to destroy a church.
However by Sunday, January 18, the violence reached the capital Niamey, as a large crowd of about 1,000 Muslims convened outside the main mosque, before marching across the streets of the city, witnesses said.
The angry crowd, reportedly guided by youths in cars and motorbikes, then set several public buildings and properties on fire, including the headquarters of the ruling party, several bars, a brothel and a beer factory.
Soon after they began attacking Christians and churches across the capital, BosNewsLife reported earlier. Security forces fired tear gas but were unable to halt rioters.
“In two hours most of the ‘work’ was done,” said an Open Doors International aid worker who supports persecuted churches. “The guides knew exactly where to find the target of the attacks, and after the attacks they checked if it was indeed destroyed," added the worker, who was not identified for security reasons.
"This is the greatest loss the Church in Niger has suffered in recent history. These attacks will have long-term effects on the small community of believers. A large number of local Christian families have lost everything they have laboured for their entire lives, " the worker added.
"The attacks also caused considerable among believers. Our brothers and sisters in Niger are in dire need of our prayer as they respond to this challenge.”
A tense calm has returned to Niamey, but bells remained silent at the still standing Catholic Cathedral on Sunday, January 18, as Christians said they did not feel safe to return home.
Christians have complained about what they view as a lack of security.
President Mahamadou Issoufou has condemned the anti-Christian violence and expressed surprise at the attack. “What have the Christians of Niger done to deserve this? Where have they wronged you?” he said in televised remarks.
"Those who plunder those places of worship, those who desecrate them, those who persecute and kill their Christian compatriots, or foreigners living on the soil of our country, did not understand anything about Islam." The week-end violence was also widely condemned by several Muslim clerics, while the government declared three days of mourning for those who died.
Christians said the clashes came as a setback for the secular government and follows rising Islam extremism in the country.
Pope Francis expressed concerns over the violence against Christians of different denominations. "War must not be waged in the name of God” he said, adding that he hopes the West African nation's climate of "reciprocal respect and peaceful cohabitation" will be re-established soon.
A local church leader reportedly urged Christians in Niger to respond with "the love of Christ". “I call on every single believer in Niger to forgive and forget, to love Muslims with all their heart, to keep up the faith, to love Christ like never before, said Pastor Sani Nomao. "Although it is painful, and what we are experiencing is really difficult, we are God’s children. We must love our persecutors…Let no one seek revenge.”
Christians elsewhere in Africa have also been targeted, including in Sudan and Kenya, while Muslims also protested against the cartoons in Algeria.