Abandonment, misery, and persecution: these are three words that sum up the ordeal experienced in 2022 by Catholics in eastern Niger, abandoned to the hands of jihadists for several years now.
“We will stay as long as there is food.” Determined, the Christians of the parish of Bomoanga – which fell several years ago into the hands of jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) organization – remain.
The testimony that they were able to send, in February 2022, to Fr. Mauro Armanino, a religious of the Society of African Missions (SMA) is precious to capture the state of persecution and abandonment in which these Christians of eastern Niger live.
In this region where there are approximately forty-five villages, now occupied by the Fulani – a nomadic people who have embraced the cause of the most radical Islamism for often ethnic reasons – the daily life of families has taken on the color of the clothing imposed by their new masters.
“Everyone, Christians and non-Christians, is obliged to follow Sharia with a Salafist sauce,” explain the inhabitants to Fr. Armanino, to whom they describe the new dress code: “shortened black pants, beards for men and full veil for women.” Any violation is severely punished.
As Christians, the parishioners of Bomoanga must pay “zakat, the Islamic tax that is levied on property, because the money has long been exhausted,” they specify.
An unjust tax that weighs more and more, because “cultivation in the fields is made impossible because of the difficulty of travelling because of the threats hanging over us”: in fact, the jihadists have taken care to riddle the surrounding countryside with anti-personnel mines in order to discourage possible fugitives.
As for the zakat, it just allows them to save their lives, but not to practice their religion freely: “It is strictly forbidden for Christians to pray in the chapel and to display crosses,” deplore the inhabitants.
Public markets having been closed until further notice by IS soldiers, “we even lack salt in this place,” reports Fr. Armanino, who explains how parishioners manage to pass on information by connecting to the network from neighboring Burkina Faso, since the pylons have been destroyed on the Niger side.
“They pray together, and their prayers carry far,” concludes the Italian missionary, full of hope.
For a year, the security situation has continued to deteriorate in this region of Sahelian forests and savannahs, close to the point of convergence of the three borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
Faced with the powerlessness of elected governments to stem the attacks of the Islamists, coups d'etat have taken place in Mali and Burkina, bringing to power soldiers who no longer hesitate to appeal to foreign powers - such as Russia – to come to their aid.
The future will tell if 2022 will see the end of the ordeal experienced by the courageous Catholics of Bomoanga.