Niger Churches Gain Strength From Unity

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Crime, Islamization Have Made Christians More Aggressive in Ministry
by Geoff Stamp
June 12, 2001

NIAMEY, Niger (Compass) -- Pushing aside years of internal disputes, churches in the West Africa country of Niger are finding unity is giving them a new boldness to face violent crime and a more aggressive Islam.

"Before the organization of the interdenominational church and mission group known as AMEN (Alliance des Missions et Eglises du Niger), many of the churches here were afraid to speak out," said one church leader in Niamey.

Niamey is the capital of this arid land, which encompasses a sizeable swathe of desert. The city sits beside the River Niger, the main trading artery for centuries in this part of West Africa.

Like many sub-Saharan African capitals, Niamey contains an incredible mixture of colonial vestige, luxurious hotels, dominant, cathedral-like banks and great sprawling suburbs of mud-built houses within mud-walled compounds.

Seen from above, the simple dwellings look neatly arranged on either side of streets that could have been drawn with a ruler. Seen from ground level, the streets are potholed -- dusty gashes in the dry desert earth. The compounds hide squalor arising from over-population, poor sanitation, no running water, lack of funds to buy medicine and a deepening insecurity that permeates urban settlements in this part of the world. People are driven to violent crime because otherwise they would be watching hunger and death take a toll on their families.

It is dangerous to go out alone at night. Not long ago, a young American was murdered for his off-road vehicle in the early hours of the morning outside La Cloche Caf‚.

Despite the Muslim uprising last November, when several churches were attacked and some destroyed, the Christians are fairly upbeat here.

"One of the main obstacles we have had to the spread of the gospel has been the wrangling between churches," explained one missionary. "In the north, we had one situation where two churches were fighting it out in court. Thank God that today we have left that behind and are learning to work together."

Another pastor and head of a main Christian organization said that he has traveled in Niger for several years. "When I first came here in 1995, I was extremely discouraged. But what I have seen and experienced now is a surprising growth of the churches."

Adamon Yazi works for Campus Crusade, preparing the "Jesus" film in a variety of local languages. "There is some resistance to our work. For example, when we wanted to show the "Jesus" film in Wadata, we were refused permission," he said. "There is a lot of discussion about religion at the present time, especially since the uprising caused by the international fashion show held here last November.

"It was not really the Muslims reacting to Christians, but rather a reaction against what they perceive as the corruption of the West," Yazi said. "They targeted anything which was seen to be supported by the West or Anglo-American and European organizations. They attacked places of vice such as bars where prostitutes hang out and places that serve alcohol."

Several churches were destroyed or damaged during the November 2000 riot. The Abundant Life Church in Maradi was burned and the Assemblies of God churches in Dan and Gao were damaged. Missions, such as the SIM compound, were broken into and, in one case, a vehicle was destroyed. Many Christian leaders still receive threats.

"It was said to be the work of the "integristes," or fundamental Muslims, who seem to be increasing in numbers and power over the past few years," Yazi said. "Since that occurrence, the government, which is openly secular, has detained various members of extreme Muslim sects.

"We can say that the churches are more aware now of the threats to their freedom to operate here without hindrance," he added.

The Muslims claim that the churches are much more aggressive in their evangelization program, and they have tried to stop Christians from preaching outside the church compounds.

There is also an accelerated program of building mosques in every village, financed from outside the country. Qur'anic schools, small clinics, orphanages and agricultural help are also featured in the Islamization program. There are efforts to promote the use of Arabic as a national language. But according to Yazi, few people understand it and even fewer can read and write in Arabic.

"The government here wants to maintain secularity because of the key trading position of Niamey and Zinder. It is also a good way to safeguard traditional worship, which fundamental Islam tries to wipe out," Yazi said.

He indicated that the "Jesus" film was now available in eight regional languages, including Djerma, Goulmanchema, Kanuri, Fulfulde and Tamashek.

"We are now careful to ask permission before showing the "Jesus" film in a rural location," Yazi continued. "Often, the village chief will also consult the local imam (Islamic religious leader) who will warn him against giving his permission. So we come to an arrangement with the chief that we will show the film in a field outside the village, and in that way, a compromise is reached."

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.