A mob of Muslim activists sacked and set fire to a Christian church in Niger this weekend to protest the arrest of an influential imam.
On Saturday night, scores of demonstrators in Maradi, Niger’s third largest city, torched the church of the Assembly of God in the Zaria neighborhood along with the car of the parish pastor. In another neighborhood, the Life to the Full Christian church was sacked.
Witnesses told Agence France Presse (AFP) that on late Saturday evening, groups of young Muslims laid barricades across the road and burned old tires in protest of the arrest of Cheick Rayadoune, the influential imam of the mosque of Zaria.
Police had arrested the imam earlier in the day after he had preached at Friday services against a new government bill on the organization of the exercise of worship, calling the proposed legislation “anti-Islam.”
After several hours of detention, the imam was released.
A senior official of the Niger’s Ministry of the Interior told AFP that there is “nothing anti-Islamic” in the proposed legislation, which is the fruit rather of extensive consultation and is intended to counter measures advocated by “obscurantist terrorist organizations” in the country.
In 2017, Niger’s Ministry of the Interior convoked Nigerien Muslim scholars to work together on drafting the bill.
In late April, the Council of Ministers adopted the legislation, which was drafted to “prevent the risks of abuses found in other countries” and to provide means for the state to “regulate practices that are common in the religious sphere,” according to an official statement.
The council’s communiqué emphasized a “total absence of rigorously defined norms” concerning “the exercise of worship” in the nation, against a backdrop of increasing “fundamentalist and extremist religious tendencies” in various regions of the country.
The bill still needs to be adopted by Parliament to become law.
Imam Cheick Rayadoune has said that he was misinformed about the content of the bill, having been falsely led to believe that it would impose same-sex marriage. He said he will correct the error in his sermon this Friday. Meanwhile, police have detained 178 Muslim demonstrators over Saturday’s violence.
Niger is a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, with only 1-2 percent of Christians of a population of more than 20 million.
The country is not unaccustomed to religiously motivated violence.
After the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed by the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015, anti-Christian mobs killed ten people in Niamey and destroyed most of the churches in the capital, as well as in Zinder, the second largest city in the country.