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Widely Reported Attacks on Niger’s Villages “not only directed at Christians”: Archbishop

Sideview of St. John the Baptist Dolbel Parish of the Archdiocese of Niamey in Niger.. Credit: Fr. Eric Médagbe

The recent attacks on two villages of a Catholic Parish in Niger that have received wide coverage claimed the lives of both Catholic Christians and Muslims, an Archbishop in the West African nation has told ACI Africa.

Based on “received reports” published by the International Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on July 2, media outlets including Nigeria’s Daily Post and Observers Times went on to report that jihadists had attacked Fantio and Dolbel villages in the Tillabéri region of Southwestern Niger, killing all male Christians and burning down a Catholic church building.

The July 2 report by ACN did not specify the religion of those killed during the attacks but cited witnesses who had said "the terrorists attacked the places (villages) on two occasions, killing the men."

“Concerning the two attacks on the village of the first Christian in Niger, I would like to clarify that they were not only directed at Christians,” Archbishop Djalwana Laurent Lompo told ACI Africa Thursday, July 15.

Archbishop Lompo added, “These armed men killed seven people, including two (Catholic) Christians and five Muslims.”

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“They certainly passed through the small village Church, but according to information we gathered, they burnt some objects without destroying the Church,” the Archbishop further said, adding that the attacks that occurred last month were “more linked to economic than religious motives.” 

The Communications Director of Niger’s Catholic Archdiocese of Niamey, Fr. Eric Médagbe, has told ACI Africa that life at Dolbel village that is under St. John the Baptist Parish and Fantio village under The Ascension Parish is beginning to return to normal.

Weeks after two attacks on Fantio and Dolbel villages on June 13 and June 30, Fr. Médagbe said, “A good number of the displaced persons have returned to the villages and with the help of the authorities it seems there is now security there.”

The Nigerien Priest recalled, “In June, a group of armed men went to the villages of Fantio and Dolbel and attacked the villages. Two people were killed in Fantio.”

In the July 15 interview with ACI Africa, Fr. Médagbe said the gunmen who attacked Dolbel village desecrated St. John the Baptist Parish

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“Indeed, the Church was desecrated, in the sense that they burned the statue of the Virgin Mary, as well as other objects of piety,” the Communications Director of the Niamey Archdiocese said.

St. John the Baptist Parish of Niamey Archdiocese has been closed for the last couple of years following an attack on the Father in charge, Fr. Fr. Médagbe further said, and explained, “Since the attack on the Parish Priest two years ago, the parish was temporarily closed and therefore there is no pastoral activity carried out by a team of Priests on site.”

“Christians are encouraged to pray at home as they can, and if possible, also to meet to pray, but there is no regular pastoral activity as is done in other Parishes of the Archdiocese,” the Nigerien Priest further said.

“We wish the community of this locality much courage and we assure them of our prayers,” he said, and invited “all those who can help in any way to do so.”

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Extremists belonging to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) group are especially notorious in the Tillaberi region of Western Niger.

Civilians in the West African nation have been living in fear owing to threats by militants who are said to have launched a psychological warfare in the country that is part of the Sahel region, a Catholic Priest was quoted as saying in a March interview.

Fr. Mauro Armanino, a member of the Society of African Missions (SMA) serving in the Catholic Mission of Bomoanga near Niger’s border with Burkina Faso told Agenzia Fides that increased threats have destabilized the region, forcing school going children to flee to other places, and bringing to a halt other key economic activities.

“A real psychological war is waged against civilians in the Bomoanga area on the border between Niger and Burkina Faso where, in the night between 17 and 18 September 2018, Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli, Italian missionary of the Society of African Missions (SMA) was kidnapped by jihadist militiamen,” Fr. Armanino said.

In another March report, gunmen on motorcycles attacked a group of civilians who were returning from a livestock market in Banibangou, near Niger's troubled border with Mali, killing at least 58 of the civilians, and burning granaries.

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Last month, Catholic Bishops in Burkina Faso and Niger urged security forces operating in the volatile regions to work toward restoring the optimism that had characterized the two West African nations of Burkina Faso before terrorist attacks.

In the June 12 statement issued at the end of their plenary assembly, members of the Episcopal Conference of Burkina-Niger (CEBN) said, “We encourage the defence and security forces, with the help of all, to be more determined in restoring peace in the zones of insecurity,” members of CEBN say in their June 12 statement.