ZINDER, NIGER—Aichatou Kane was preparing for Friday lunch with fellow congregants when the gate that separated the church compound from the busy street outside burst open, and hundreds of people wielding clubs and gasoline canisters began streaming in.
“They started burning the church, and then they turned to our residence. They invaded every part of the house,” says Mrs. Kane, who is the wife of the church’s pastor. “Then someone told us to convert to Islam.”
It was Jan. 16, 2015, days after two gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 12 journalists. In much of the Muslim world, public outrage arose in response to what followed – the magazine continued with the publication of the next issue, again featuring a caricature of the prophet Muhammad.
In Niger, a West African country where at least 90 percent of the population practices Islam, protests turned into riots in which some 68 Christian churches, schools, and orphanages were burned over two days across several cities, according to the Evangelical Church and Missions Associations of Niger.
Rioters also targeted police, government buildings, and French businesses in what experts say was a display of frustration toward the West and Niger’s secular government, including President Mahamadou Issoufou, who had expressed support for the French after the Paris attack. Ten people were reportedly killed and dozens were injured.
For a number of religious leaders, meanwhile, the violence was a wake-up call. Until the 2015 riots, Niger had a history of relatively peaceful religious relations between its Muslim majority and small Christian minority. Now, the increasing extremist influence from neighboring northern Nigeria – the seat of Boko Haram – seemed to threaten the status quo, pushing religious leaders here to focus their efforts on building bridges between faith communities and denouncing violence.
‘For a dialogue’
After the attacks, Muslim and Christian religious leaders formed committees in their cities, “for a dialogue,” says Mohamadou al-Hadi Ashara, an imam who runs a Koranic school in the southern city of Maradi.
In the month after the riot, he used his Friday sermons to convey a pointed message to his 1,000-plus students and their families.
“Peaceful coexistence,” he says.
For Elisée Assan Oumara, the secretary general of evangelical churches in Zinder, the attacks pointed to a “sleeping radicalism,” exploited by preachers from Nigeria.
Southern Niger and northern Nigeria share a common language and culture, and members of the same family may live on either side of the border, intermingling often.
In recent years, sermons developed for the context of northern Nigeria, where radical preachers are much more hostile to Christians, have been broadcast into Niger, says Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a PhD candidate at University of Florida, whose dissertation is a study of the riots in Zinder, his hometown. “Something is changing in Niger in terms of religiosity, and it’s very much influenced by Nigeria.”
Following the riots, 10 Islamic groups in Maradi formed a union and created a new rule for preaching in the area, according to Mr. Ashara, the imam there.
“Now we have taken measures, no one can come from outside and deliver a violent sermon,” he says. “In order to preach in our country, you should have a correspondent [sponsor] in the country, you should present what you will preach. If it is against Islamic laws, you will be prevented from preaching.”
But it is unclear if those regulations are being enforced or if there is even a mechanism to do so, says Hamza Cherbib, a West Africa research assistant at the International Crisis Group.
Local inter-religious groups were also formed to coordinate the messaging in church and mosque sermons, focusing on how violence was both un-Islamic and unchristian, citing examples from the Koran and the Bible. That idea wasn’t new, says Djibrin Issa Bana, director of AREF (action pour la rénovation de l’éducation non formelle), a local nongovernmental organization that works with Koranic schools to improve skills and tolerance training. The idea had been floated since 2002, he says, but there was no funding for such a project until the riots.
In Zinder after the attacks, a European Union-financed project brought Christian and Muslim community leaders together in the same room to train them on preaching tolerance, says Mr. Oumara.
‘Still we’re afraid’
But for some, localized efforts at dialogue and sensitization are not enough.
Christians were “despondent in how the government of Niger managed the crisis,” Mr. Cherbib says, adding that he doesn’t see the riots only as a symbol of growing religious radicalism. It is also, he says, an example of the government’s inability to manage socio-economic grievances in a tense political environment at home while also facing the threat of instability from jihadism abroad.
Surrounded by considerable violence and continual upheaval in neighboring Nigeria, Libya, and Mali, Niger’s government has been “critically important” in building a counter-terrorism coalition in the Sahel region, says Beth Cole, an expert on violent extremism and conflict at the US Institute of Peace. The country is even hosting American and French military assets.
But at home, many Christians feel left behind. The government has yet to release a report of the two-year investigation meant to explain how and why the attacks occurred, and who carried them out. And while people were arrested following the violence, there are no official numbers available to the public, and none of the cases have been brought to court, according to Mr. Ibrahim and Cherbib.
Meanwhile, many Christian communities, like Kane and her church, are still rebuilding.
“We receive visits from imams, we are together in town, we meet in social events,” says Oumara, the pastor from Zinder. “But still we’re afraid because of what happened.”