Protesters angered by the publishing of satirical cartoons of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad by French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo have reportedly gone on the rampage and set fire to local churches, while five people have been killed, the Huffington Post and Reuters news agency have stated.
In the second day of violence in the French-speaking West African nation, five people were killed yesterday as Niger was gripped by religious violence stirred up by the publication of the cartoons in France, which have seen widespread condemnation by Muslim communities across the globe. Charlie Hebdo, a well-known satirical publication that frequently mocks politicians and religions, was the victim of an atrocity last week in which seventeen people, including the editor, Stephane Charbonnier alias Charb, several members of his cartoonists team and three police officers were gunned down by two brothers, the Kouachis, said to have links to Islamic State in Syria. Four shoppers were also taken hostage by another militant at a kosher supermarket, also in Paris, and were killed along with the militant, identified as Amedy Coulibaly, when police raided the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Vincennes on the 9th of January.
The magazine defied the militants by publishing a ‘survivors’ edition’ featuring a cartoon depiction of the founder of Islam crying under the words “Tout est pardonné” (“All is forgiven“). This edition led to numerous protests across the world by Muslims offended by the depiction of their prophet. Islam forbids the depiction of living things, especially Muhammad, as it can be seen as encouraging the unpardonable sin of idolatry. The Charlie Hebdo killings were roundly condemned by leaders of France’s 5 million-strong Muslim minority, many who have become the victims of Islamophobic revenge attacks in the wake of the militant attack last week.
Reporting from the Niger capital Niamey, Reuters journalists say the country has been rocked by two days of violence, and that the death toll has already reached ten. Gangs of youths were reported to have set fire to shops, businesses and places of worship belonging to Niger’s Christian community after a meeting of local Muslim community leaders was allegedly banned by the authorities. Police attempted to battle the rampage and contain the youths by using tear gas. The youths retaliated by throwing stones, before attacking a police station and torching two squad cars in the vicinity.
One of the protesters, named by Reuters as Amadou Abdoul Ouahab, was quoted as saying “They offended our Prophet Mohammad, that’s what we didn’t like,”
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou announced that the five killed on Saturday (17 January 2014) were all civilians. Four were burned to death inside blazing churches and bars selling alcoholic drinks. The Niger president said that an inquiry into the killings would take place and organisers of the riots would be apprehended and punished. “Those who pillage religious sites and profane them, those who persecute and kill their Christian compatriots or foreigners who live on our soil, have understood nothing of Islam,” he said in a televised address.
President Issoufou, himself a Muslim, however disagreed with the publication of the Charlie Hebdo survivors’ issue saying that he shared the disgust and outrage of Muslims at the caricatures of their beloved prophet and that freedom of expression should be accountable of the need to respect religious beliefs. Charlie Hebdo has long attracted flak for lampooning Jews, Catholics and Muslims, but since the killings of its staff last week, the small Paris-based magazine has become a popular bastion of journalistic freedom of expression, including the controversial right to offend. Hundreds of thousands have identified themselves with the trending slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie“) in solidarity with the slain journalists and protecting freedom of speech.
Issoufou was one of the participants last week of a march held in Paris against the atrocity, alongside many world politicians from opposing sides. Yesterday though, he said his participation in that march was to demonstrate his opposition to terrorism and not in support of the magazine itself.
After the riots, calm returned to the streets of Niamey by yesterday afternoon, but another planned march by the city’s Muslim community is feared to possibly re-ignite tensions. The civic authorities put a block on the march going ahead, but organisers have said they will defy the ruling and proceed anyway, possibly risking confrontation with local police and members of the Christian community.
Demonstrations were also reported in regional towns across Niger, including Maradi, 600 km (375 miles) east of Niamey, where two churches were burned. Another church and a residence of the foreign minister were burned in the eastern town of Goure.
The foreign minister of France, which once ruled Niger as an overseas colony, Laurent Fabius, roundly condemned the weekend violence in the country, stating “France expresses its solidarity with the authorities in Niger,” France currently maintains a battery of troops and defences in co-operation with Niger to battle against Islamist insurgencies in the neighbouring state of Mali as part of a regional counter-terrorism operation.
Four preachers of Islam who organised the meeting were arrested on Saturday as tensions began to flare, according to local police. The French government has warned its citizens living as expatriates in Niamey to exercise caution and avoid unnecessary travel.
Residents in Niger’s second largest city of Zinder said that a burned corpse was discovered in the remains of a Catholic church torched by rioters there, bringing the death toll to five from Friday’s clashes. Locals also claimed that wholesale attacks against Zinder’s Christians were instigated, with religious books, churches and minority-owned shops ransacked and set on fire. A French cultural centre was also set alight, and a police officer is among the dead, the rest are civilians, according to sources from the police.
In contrast with Niger, demonstrators in other Francophone west African nations, including Mali, Senegal and Mauritania, and in Algeria in North Africa, made peaceful protests against the Charlie Hebdo controversy after leaving their mosques after they finished Juma’a (Friday) prayers, Reuters reports.
Niger’s 17 million people are almost all Muslims, though its government remains secular. About 94% profess Islam, mostly of the Sunni branch. There are also communities professing Nigerien animism and Christianity.
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“Niger Protesters Burn Churches On Second Day Of Anti-Charlie Hebdo Violence” – Abdoulaye Massalaki, Daniel Flynn & Andrew Roche, Reuters & The World Post, The Huffington Post & Berggruen Institute on Governance (17 January 2015) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/17/niger-charlie-hebdo_n_6492054.html
“File:Niamey night.jpg” – diasUndKompott via FlickreviewR, Wikimedia Commons (4 January 2007) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Niamey_night.jpg
“File:Niamey-Moschee.jpg” – Dominik Schwarz, Wikimedia Commons (17 December 2009) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Niamey-Moschee.jpg