Boko Haram is determined to take its jihadist campaign beyond Nigeria. Its next targets include Niger, where—as reported in an email message from a woman religious working as a missionary in the country—the group has proclaimed that “Christians must die.”
Currently in hiding, along with her fellow missionaries, in private homes in Niger’s capital of Niamey, the sister wrote to international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. Last week’s violent protests in both Niamey and the town of Zinder against the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo—killing 10 and wounding 173 people—“were planned,” she wrote, instigated by the Nigerian terrorist organization.
“At Christmas time, Boko Haram had threatened to burn down all the churches in Niger and burn us alive! But for some reason it did not happen; no one knows quite why. It was by coincidence that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo set the world on fire. ‘The Christians must die; that way we will be able to go to paradise,’ say the disciples of Boko Haram. It’s diabolical. But we are not going to let ourselves be moved by fear. Love is stronger than hatred,” wrote the missionary, whose name is withheld for her protection.
She continued: “It started in Zinder first of all – with five deaths, four people inside a church and one in a cafe. The French cultural centre was attacked and totally burned out, as was a bank. The church, where the Missionaries of Africa live, was also set on fire, along with the neighboring residence of the Sisters of the Assumption, along with their cars and the school—everything was on fire. They have nothing left except their lives, and that alone is something to be grateful for. They were able to flee in time and took refuge on a military base.”
The sister described the violence in Niamey as being “on a major scale.” A group of men on motorcycles looted “the churches, one after another,” then destroyed them. “They took away everything they could use and then set fire to them, with cans of petrol. They also burned the Protestant and Evangelical churches—altogether around 40 churches; it was incredible,” she continued.
Next bars, restaurants and gas stations—and even orphanages: “Fortunately the caretakers were able to take the children to police stations, where they were safe, but the attackers stole all the supplies of food,” the email message said.
The Sisters of Charity were at least able to save their hospital, along with its patients. The violent demonstrators were about to set fire to the hospital, but the religious confronted the attackers: “Can we first of all take out the patients before you set fire to it? These words gave the rebels pause for thought and as a result they did not touch the hospital, but nevertheless they still burned down the church,” the missionary reported.
Continuing her account, the sister wrote: “When Bishop Djalwana Laurent Lompo Niamey heard that two communities of sisters were being attacked, he told them they must flee immediately and seek refuge. We had already had phone calls from concerned Muslim friends, who had urged us: ‘Come with us, they will not burn down the neighbourhood where they themselves live.’”
“You never know with these gangs. I went to the chapel with another sister to consume the Blessed Sacrament, because they also tried to burn the tabernacles. We locked everything up.”
One of the sisters in the community is from Rwanda and she knows what it means to have to flee, having lived through the 1994 Rwandan genocide: “She had on five skirts and five blouses, one on top of the other. We were in fits of laughter when she came out of her room, like a giant; she could scarcely walk, she had so many clothes on,” the email said.
“One of the other missionaries had only just returned from Poland and had not even had time to unpack her things, but we had to flee immediately. What a shock it was for her! The neighbours came to say goodbye, with tears in their eyes. We entrusted the key of the house to one of them. It was very emotional. A Middle Eastern family took us in, with the hospitality that the people of the Middle East are known for.
“On the way we saw a Protestant church that had already been totally burnt out. No, it was incredible in a country so peaceful as Niger… But no, now Niger is no longer peaceful. For now we are safe, and living with a family. We pray, keep silence, respond to innumerable telephone calls from friends and other women religious who are concerned about us.
“On Sunday we did not go to church, but last night there were two priests who came to celebrate Mass in a small downstairs room. It was very moving, as it was quite unplanned. God does not desert us. He is balm for our hearts, and our faith grows stronger.
“We are at peace again. We do not intend to let ourselves be moved by violence or fear. No one knows what the future will bring. Let us only hope it will be more peaceful and that we will be able to return to live in community.
“Why so much hatred and violence? Peace is not simply a word. We know just how fragile everything is. We have to work so hard to achieve peace—starting with ourselves. Why so much hatred, so much violence? We are weeping. The tears are flowing. O Jesus, save us!”
The sister’s email concluded with a plea: “Pray for us, for our people, for the world. So that the Light of the Love of Christ may be able to shine forth!”
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)