OXFORD, England (CNS) — The head of the Catholic Church in Niger 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 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 organized. Strong links already exist between Islamist groups in several countries and a network is forming,” the archbishop said.
“We thought the Islamists had been dispersed earlier this year in northern Mali. But they merely regrouped in southern Libya and intervened elsewhere,” he said following the June 9 episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Djalwana Laurent Lompo, the country’s first Niger-born bishop.
The ordination went forward amid fears of a pending attack by the rebels.
A member of the Society of African Missions, Archbishop Cartateguy told Catholic News Service June 18 that he had requested an auxiliary because he is unable to visit parts of Niger out of fear of being abducted as a French national.
He said the rebels’ anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiments are partially a backlash against the legalization of same-sex marriage in France, the region’s principal former colonial power. He said that he recently closed a Catholic parish in northern Niger to protect local Christians.
“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,” Archbishop Cartateguy said.
Frequent electric power cuts in Niamey, Niger’s capital, create “favorable conditions for suicide attacks” by leaving the city in darkness and cutting links with the outside world, he added.
“Christian communities are living in anxiety and fear. It’s the first time Islamist militants have come into the open on such a scale,” said the archbishop, who has headed the church in Niger since January 2003.
“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. The church has a joint bishops’ conference with neighboring Burkina Faso and participates in an Islamic-Christian dialogue commission headed by Bishop Joachim Ouedraogo of Koudougou, Burkina Faso.
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 a June 1 attack. The government of President Mahamadou Issoufou blamed the attack on Islamists from the Boko Haram movement in neighboring Nigeria.
Muslim leaders sent large delegations to Bishop Lompo’s ordination from Niamey and Maradi, the country’s second Catholic diocese, but a substantial police presence was needed to ensure security, the archbishop said.
“It’s important for the church’s profile to have a local bishop. It shows the missionary phase is ending as Europeans become fewer,” he explained.
“But Niger is important strategically for the Islamists, since its borders are porous and vulnerable, and its government can’t exercise full control. This is why we’re now under attack.”
The prison assault followed May 23 suicide car bombings at a military barracks at Agadez and French-run uranium mine at Arlit, which left 36 dead. Most were Niger soldiers.
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 also were 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 bloody 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.