Sr. Jose-Myriam of our community in Zinder, Niger was interviewed by La Croix newspaper about the Sisters' experience of January 16th, the night they were attacked by an angry mob. The mob's anger was triggered by the depiction of the prophet Mohammed in the Charlie Hebdo magazine published after the terrorist attack in Paris. Her account is chilling.
Click here to read the original article in French, published on the La Croix website, January 30, 2015. Many thanks to Sr. Clare Teresa, RA of our Philadelphia community for the translation into English.
Thank you for your prayers for them and for the people of Niger. Let us intensify our prayer for peace, respect and understanding among different faiths.
Anti-Christian Violence in Niger, recounted by a Religious of the Asssumption:
Sister Jose-Myriam is an Assumption Sister who was part of the Assumption community in Zinder, Niger. On Friday, January 16th, she, along with four other sisters and thirty parishioners, had to hide while anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters wrecked and pillaged their house, their church and their school.
From Burkina Faso, where she and her sisters fled, she agreed to tell La Croix about the terrible ordeal.
For the five sisters in Zinder, everything began on Thursday, January 15th: "Around 10 A.M., we saw tracts circulated in the town. They said that the image of Mohammed had been profaned in Charlie Hebdo and that all should demonstrate the next day to show their anger and defend the image of their prophet. The sisters contacted the pastor of the church and showed him the tracts. He, in turn, decided to appeal to the authorities of the city: the governor, the mayor, the Commisariat and the police. He sent a letter requesting the protection of the sisters, their works and the church. He reassured us, guaranteeing that he would take all the necessary precautions against an attack. But the atmosphere became more and more worrisome: in the evening, after the 7 o'clock Mass, friends started calling us and telling us it would be best to leave our house because what was going to happen was not as clear as all that.
"UNBELIEVERS, CHRISTIANS, TODAY WE ARE GOING TO KILL YOU."
The next day, the situation started to degenerate from about 8:00 in the morning: "Children from the elementary school began throwing stones and yelling 'Unbelievers, Christians, we are going to kill you today, and they put a can of fuel next to the church."
After Mass, the entire community took refuge in the parish hall. The parish priest returned to alert the governor who promised to go to the parish in person at eleven. "But when eleven o'clock came and he hadn't arrived, the priest left again to see him and to recount that all during the day, motorcycles were circulating with banners which said Allah Akhbar and no one knew what that meant."
Not having obtained any satisfaction from the Governor, the priest took the matter in hand himself. "Around 11:30, he told us to bring all the vehicles into the enclosure, for the church, the sisters convent, the parish hall and the school are all in the same enclosure. And around 12:45, he told us to come take refuge. We were about 35 people. Around 1:45, he hid us and remained outside to see what was going on."
"AS SOON AS THEIR PRAYER WAS FINISHED, THEY POUNCED ON THE SCHOOL"
A little while later, after the Moslem prayers of Friday, the situation exploded. "As soon as their prayer was over, they pillaged and burned everything. Then, they attacked the parish hall, then the church. They pillaged, burned, profaned the statues....and they finished by the sisters house."
The sisters and parishioners remained locked in, powerless witnesses of all the destruction of their buildings. "We were there, heard all the noise. And when they had finished burning everything, they cried "Where are they? We will find them and kill them." The smoke from the burning cars was filling our hideout; we could hardly breathe. They tried to break down the door but a sister and a laywoman were able to block it until one of the cars exploded in front of the door and they all ran away. They continued looking for us and hurling stones."
This ordeal lasted more than three hours. "We called for help. A sister received a call from the archbishop of Niamey who asked what was happening. She replied: 'We are really in danger.'"
"GOD HAS DONE WONDERS. WE HAVE ESCAPED FREE."
The Archbishop immediately contacted the authorities in Niamey, asking them to alert those in Zinder (900 km away). In fact, the latter had sent only a few policemen who were quickly overrun by the protesters. "About three o'clock, they sent soldiers who took some time to disperse the crowd so that it was 4:30 before we were told to come out."
For Sister Jose Myriam, the end of this terrible day was miraculous: "We came out blackened by the smoke. God really worked a miracle: we were unharmed, no one had been burnt or suffocated. We were helpless but God was there. In our hiding place, the youngest was 2 years old and the eldest 75. When we emerged, we gave thanks to God and sang.... Then ambulances came and we were taken to army barracks."
"WE DONT KNOW YET WHAT WE ARE GOING TO DO."
For three days, the sisters remained in the barracks protected by the military. Help began to come. "We had left without anything; everything had been burned even our papers," sister told us. Finally they were able to leave for Burkina Faso, accompanied by the chauffeur of the Archbishop of Niamey. They finally reached the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, on Saturday 24th January.
From there they went to Abidjan (Ivory Coast), to meet with their provincial superior and learn about their future. "We still don't know what we are going to do. Even if the decision is to return to Niger, it will take time, everything has been destroyed. Everything has to be rebuilt- the convent, the church."
The 700 children who attended the sisters school in Zinder were taken in by the normal school [a teacher training college] which is arranging for them to finish their year.
Reporting by Gauthier Vaillant of La Croix, Frances Daily Catholic newspaper.
Translation by Sr. Clare Teresa Tjader, R.A.