NIAMEY, Niger — Muslims throughout the West African country of Niger torched at least seven churches and destroyed a number of businesses in riots showing their opposition to the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had been attacked by Muslims this month for publishing cartoons mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammad.
“They offended our prophet Muhammad. That’s what we didn’t like,” Amadou Abdoul Ouaha told Reuters. “This is the reason why we have asked Muslims to come, so that we can explain this to them, but the state refused. That’s why we’re angry today.”
As previously reported, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, 32 and 34 respectively, stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 8, killing 10 staff members and two police officers.
Witnesses on the scene state that “[t]wo black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikovs” and were yelling the Islamic phrase “Allahu Ahkbar,” meaning “Allah is great.” Video footage also shows the Kouachi brothers declaring, “We have avenged the prophet Mohammad” after committing the massacre on the satirical newspaper.
This week, Charlie Hebdo released a photograph of its new cover photo, which features a caricature of Mohammad with a tear in his eye and holding a sign reading “I am Charlie.” The phrase “all is forgiven” was also written across the top of the page.
According to reports, Muslims in Niger became enraged over the continued cartoons and broke out in violent protest on Friday, killing five. As the rampage continued on Saturday, in addition to targeting businesses that had ties to France or were non-Muslim, Islamists in the country also destroyed a number of Christian and Roman Catholic churches.
Original reports stated that two churches had been torched in the riot, but the number later grew to seven. Buildings were also ransacked and Bibles were confiscated.
Zakaria Jadi, a pastor in Niamey, told the BBC that he was meeting with church elders when he learned of the rioting.
“I just rushed and told my colleagues in the church to take away their families from the place,” he explained. “I took my family to take them out from the place. When I came back, I just discovered that everything has gone. There’s nothing in my house and also in the church.”
“Some of us stayed barricaded in our homes. I have never been so scared in my life,” an unidentified Christian mechanic also told the Associated Press. “The government must put a stop to this. It doesn’t look good for us.”
An additional five civilians were found dead on Saturday, with four of them to be killed either in a church or bar. President Mahamadou Issoufou has vowed to punish those involved with the murders, but stated that “[t]hose who loot these places of worship, who desecrate them and kill their Christian compatriots … have understood nothing of Islam.”
Police took to the streets with tear gas in an attempt to push back approximately 1,000 protesters in the nation’s capital of Niamey, who burned tires and threw stones at officials. Two police cars were also set on fire and a police station attacked, as the government prohibited an Islamic meeting from taking place.
Over 95 percent of Niger’s population is Muslim, and less than one percent is stated to be Christian. The country itself is secular, and was formerly a French colony.