In Niger, witnessing Christ's love to Muslims
• "In some of the villages of Niger, people even thought I must have been white at birth, because I was Catholic!"
Mother Marie-Catherine Kingbo is the Superior General of the Fraternity of the Servants of Christ in Niger. She spoke late last month at an event in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, organised by the French office of Aid to the Church in Need.
It is early January 2015. Everywhere the media are full of the Mohammed cartoons in the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and tension is mounting in Niger. On 16th and 17th January incensed Muslim demonstrators start to attack churches and schools, convents and religious houses, and individual Christians. The most seriously affected regions are those of Zinder and Niamey. And the fires are also burning in Maradi and in other regions. We, the Catholic religious sisters who have been established here in Niger since 2006, prepare ourselves for the worst.
In some countries of Africa, people associate Christianity with the West. In some of the villages of Niger, people even thought I must have been white at birth, because I was Catholic! As you can see, what you do in the West has an impact on us Christians here – and all the more so since the population of Niger is 98% Muslim! During this time of suffering and uncertainty my daily prayer is inspired by these words of the Prophet Micah: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me.” Yes, these people who have benefited from so much care, education and love from the Catholic Church in Niger, who have come knocking on our doors, day and night, asking for food and help in their poverty, these are the same people who have now turned against us, throwing stones at us, burning our churches and trying to prevent us from wearing a cross.
(Mother Marie-Catherine Kingbo © Aid to the Church in Need)
Had it not been for the intervention of the police during that month of January 2015, we would not have been spared. In the community of which I am the Superior General we were a group of 20 or so sisters and novices. Some were afraid. So I put this question to them: “Do you want to leave or remain here?” Not one of them left, despite their fear and insecurity. We remained barricaded inside the convent, unable to attend Mass, for three weeks. We adored, and prayed as usual. I trusted in God, and in the people whom we are helping.
You know, it is 11 years since I came from Senegal to help the people of Niger, as God asked of me. One day in 2005, as I was following a course in Islam, I understood how the Muslims see Christ. Not as the Son of God, who died on the cross and was raised, but as a simple prophet. I was astonished, because they did not know this God of love and goodness. And then, it was if I was being challenged by Christ in these words: “Now that you know this, make my true face known in a Muslim environment.” That was how the Lord asked me to be his witness. The place of this mission came to me clearly in the course of my prayer: “Set out for Niger.”
In 2006 I left to begin my new mission, accompanied by a young Senegalese postulant, and we founded the first autochthonous religious congregation there, the Fraternité des Servantes du Christ (Fraternity of the Servants of Christ), with the approval of the diocesan bishop.
The objective was to show forth the tender face of the Lord, not to compel the Muslims to become Christians. We began by going through the villages, talking to the local people in order to get to know them better. We soon realised the precarious existence that a large proportion of the people were living in, especially the women and the children. Something had to be done to remedy the situation. For example, we met Absou, aged 27, with six children, a blind husband and unable to work. We invited her to come to our nutrition and healthcare centre for children and expectant mothers. We also discovered that young girls are sometimes given in marriage from the age of 11 to 12, and that some of them die as a result, in giving birth to their first child. And so we decided to organise teaching sessions for the mothers and young women, for the village chiefs, the young boys and the imams. We also wanted to get them to think about the radicalisation of some of the young people, the preaching of some of the imams who incite people to violence, the consequences of the actions perpetrated by terrorists around the world.
In 2007, our first session for the imams and village chiefs was attended by 24 participants. It was incredible; we had never imagined that such people would respond to the appeal of a woman, a religious and a stranger! The most remarkable thing was when I asked the question, “Are you not bothered by a religious, a foreigner and a Catholic challenging your way of thinking?” One of them gave me this surprising and encouraging reply: “What unites us is neither religion, nor ethnicity, but love.” So without knowing it, he was already talking about God. Currently we have more than a hundred imams and village chiefs attending these meetings every year.
(IDPs in Diocese of Maradi © Aid to the Church in Need/Caritas Niger)
Today, indeed, the mentality has changed very much for the better. One Nigerian woman, a former Muslim, has joined our community and wants to become a nun! At the age of 15 she felt the desire to turn to Christ, to convert and to enter into the consecrated life. That was not without difficulty. She was rejected by her family, who no longer wanted to have any contact with her, but who came round in the end and accepted her again. There is even a Muslim dignitary in our district who has entrusted his seven-year-old daughter to us and wants her to become a boarder and a Catholic. Her faith has begun to awaken in her, and she is currently attending our preschool.
But there is still some way to go in many hearts. Last December, a group of young men violently harangued one of our workers, just because he was working for us, the sisters. More than once we have been subjected to stones thrown on our roof during the evening office. One Christmas Day, outside the doors of our convent, some children came to shout insults at us. In the face of such aggression, since October 2014, we have had two policeman posted 24 hours a day at the entrance to our convent.
We, the sisters of the Fraternité des Servantes du Christ, who are all from different backgrounds – from Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and from Chad – have left everything in order to reveal the true face of the Lord, who is only LOVE. We draw our strength from these words of Christ: “I am with you all days, even to the end of the world.”
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