A church in Niger was set on fire by Muslims protesting the arrest of a local imam who was critical of proposed legislation to regulate religion.
Sources told media that the Assembly of God church in the Zaria district of Maradi, the West African country’s third largest city, was torched by protesters on the night of June 15 and continued through the next day.
In addition to the church, the pastor’s car was also torched.
Witnesses told Fides, a Vatican news agency, the incident occurred after the arrest of Sheikh Rayadoune, an imam at the Zaria mosque.
Rayadoune’s arrest happened on June 15 after he criticized a proposed measure that he believed would impose regulations on worship during his Friday prayer services.
Witnesses told the Catholic news outlet that groups of young people demonstrated against Rayadoune’s arrest by building barricades on the road and burning tires.
Rayadoune was released from police custody the following day. Before his release, the cleric implored rioters to stop the destruction.
“All my supporters must stop burning things and making trouble in town: Islam does not recommend that I have in no way been mistreated by police,” the imam said in his message to supporters, according to News Central.
The imam also said that he was deceived by a poor translation of the bill’s text.
The draft bill was adopted in April by the Council of Ministers but has yet to be voted into law by Parliament.
An interior ministry official told AFP that the law is designed to prevent "anarchy and the distortions promoted by obscurantist terrorist groups to gain ground in our country."
The official added that there is “nothing anti-Islam in the text."
The proposed law comes as a string of attacks from Islamic State and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremist outfits have plagued Sahel region countries like Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
In May, assailants attacked a Catholic parish in Niger, located in the Diocese of Niamey.
Missionary sources told Fides at the time that the parish Priest, Nicaise Avlouké, was injured in the altercation.
“There have long been ‘rumors’ of possible attacks on the parish and priests in particular,” sources told Fides. “This last fact only confirms the deterioration of the security situation in the border area with Burkina Faso. The defense forces appear little prepared for this new stage of Sahelian terrorism.”
Priest Luigi Maccalli, a missionary with the Society for African Missions, was kidnapped in Niger in September 2018. Last week, an interfaith prayer meeting for Maccalli was held in Niamey. He still remains missing after nine months.
The prayer event was the first common moment of prayer with Muslim leaders concerning Maccalli’s abduction, according to SAM Priest Mauro Armanino.
“Muslims and Christians united in the pain of families for the many, too many faithful who have been killed or have disappeared,” Armanino told Fides.
In Mali, at least 95 people were said to have been killed in an attack this month where alleged Fulani militants opened fired and set the central Mali village of Sobame Da on fire.
According to the Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors USA, all those killed in the village were Christian.
As there has been an escalation of violent attacks in Burkina Faso, a number of Christian communities in northern Burkina Faso have been targeted this year in deadly attacks by gunmen.
In Airbinda, a town that has recently faced a number of attacks and where 19 people were killed in June, Christian residents have expressed concern that they are being driven out of the town.
“There is no Christian anymore in this town [Arbinda],” an anonymous contact told the Christian aid charity, Barnabus Fund. “It's proven that they were looking for Christians. Families who hide Christians are killed. Arbinda had now lost a total of no less than 100 people within six months.”
Across the Sahel region, as many as 4.2 million people have been displaced due to the escalating armed violence, according to the United Nations.