A Muslim mob burned out a church in Maradi city, Niger, on 15 June in protest over the arrest of an influential imam who later apologised for his comments criticising a new religious law − comments that sparked the attack, according to local media reports .
A total of 178 protesters were arrested during the violent demonstration in the southern city.
The imam of Sahaba Mosque in Maradi admitted his interpretation of the law was incorrect and apologised to the Christians during a visit to their ruined church, which was also a pastor training centre. The cleric had been detained in custody for several hours after labelling a new government law for religious practice in Niger as “anti-Islamic”.
The government affirms its support for the religious freedom of any group in the first article of the new law which states, “The purpose of this law is to guarantee the free exercise of religion in the Republic of Niger.” The law also highlights that all are free to worship, but religious observance should be exercised with respect for “public order, peace and social tranquillity”.
The law introduces a formal religious building control process, including a requirement to declare funding sources. Religious education establishments will also be regulated. The government said the measures will help to “prevent the risks of abuses observed in other countries”.
A group of eight Islamic organisations, out of 105 that registered, oppose the new legislation and held a meeting on 21 July, in Zinder – a city where radical anti-Christian sentiment runs particularly high. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons sparked riots in Zinder in January 2015, resulting in attacks on churches and five deaths, including a Christian man found burned to death in a church that was set on fire.
The militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, which has a grip on northern Nigeria where it originated, has been stepping up attacks in south-eastern Niger in 2019. Violence flared again on 18 June, the day after the new law was passed, at a checkpoint near Niamey when two police officers were killed and another two injured.
On 11 June, the Islamist militants issued a warning giving Christian families in south-eastern Niger three days to flee their homes or be killed; several fled to the border city of Diffa. A bomb attack on a church, also in Diffa, was foiled on 2 June when police arrested a local Muslim leader and his accomplice just before they carried out the attack. On May 13, a church minister in Dolbel, near the capital Niamey, spent several weeks in hospital after being shot three times by Islamist militants.
From Barnabas Fund contacts