Closure of churches and mosques provokes violent protests in the West African nation
The ban on congregational prayer in Niger, due to the coronavirus, has caused incomprehension and violence for several weeks now.
Government officials in the West African country took firm measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic as soon as the first case of infection was announced four weeks ago.
There are nearly 700 cases of coronavirus at present.
There is a nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. And the nation’s capital, Niamey, which has the highest number of cases, has been isolated.
In addition, large gatherings have been banned, which means services in Christian churches and Muslim mosques have been stopped.
That has not set well with the Muslim community, which makes up 97% of Niger’s population of 22.4 million people.
Protests against the closure of mosques increased in the days leading up to the start of Ramadan, which began on the evening of April 23. The situation was further exacerbated after an imam was arrested.
The riots began in the center of the country on March 23 when young people armed with clubs and knives attacked buildings and set fire to parked vehicles.
A few days later, residents in a western part of Niger took the streets, setting fire to a town hall and private property.
There was also violence in Niamey, the country’s largest city.
Tensions flared in the capital from April 17-19 after an imam was arrested for opposing the closing of mosques. Three hundred people were arrested last weekend.
Demonstrators told AFP they were extremely angry.
« We only want to pray in our mosques, without violence, nothing more. And we are determined to exercise this religious right, » threatened Hassane Dari, a young shopkeeper in Lazaret, a poor district of Niamey.
« We couldn’t have congregational prayer on Fridays and they want to prevent us from praying during the blessed month of Ramadan? It’s not going to happen like that! » added Hadjia Aïssa, a housewife from Banizoumbou, a neighborhood near Lazaret.
There have been precedents
This is not the first time that Niger has been set ablaze for religious reasons.
In June 2019, an influential imam, Sheikh Rayadoune, was arrested for claiming a bill on places of worship was « anti-Islam ». Demonstrators burned tires and set fire to an evangelical church in the south-central part of the country.
In a nation heavily affected by terrorist attacks, the decried bill stated that « freedom of worship must be exercised in accordance with public order » and that « the practice of worship in public places (will) be subject to prior authorization ».
In 2017, during a symposium organized by the Nigerien Ministry of the Interior, the imams and ulemas of Niger were consulted in the context of the work leading up to the text of the law.
After his release, Sheikh Rayadoune admitted that he had been misled and asked his supporters to stop the violence.
Furthermore, in January 2015 some 45 churches were burned down during riots after the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Lucie Sarr (Traduction La Croix International)
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