ZINDER, Niger (Christian Examiner) –Issa Elhadjkouldjami, the pastor of one of the few Christian churches in Zinder, first heard about the threats from his son in January. The boy ran home from school to tell his father that their neighbors planned to burn their church and home.
The pastor moved his family to the local gendarmerie where he prayed and read the Bible while Muslim protestors looted and burned his church, along with their home attached to the building.
"We lost a lot of things," Issa said. "We were really full of pain. While we're reading the Bible [at the base], we were relieved."
So open was their attitude of praise, one woman who witnessed their reaction accepted Christ.
Even though his parishoners' initial reaction was anger and retaliation, Issa convinced them to forgive their neighbors. At the outdoor service his church held the next day, more Christians than usual attended to show solidarity.
Pastors and Christians in Niger hope that their forgiveness and continued ministry to their communities will show those who burned their crosses and Bibles that Christ's love endures beyond buildings and rituals.
Seven months later, Issa's church has been meeting under a temporary roof constructed next to the burned out church. "We hope to rebuild so that we can continue to show the love of Christ," Issa said.
"We will not stop. We will continue with everything we've got in our heart," Issa said in an online story produced by Samaritan's Purse.
SCORES OF CHURCHES BURNED IN HOURS
The international relief ministry reported 60 churches burned in four hours in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Within two days, the country lost 70 churches. Only 19 cities in Niger had churches in the first place. The country is estimated to be 94 percent Muslim or more.
The burnings in Niger were related to the shooting at the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan. 7. Muslims were outraged at the cartoon drawing of Muhammad and wanted to avenge the faith. Imams at local mosques likely incited the riots.
Initially planned as a demonstration, the looting and vandalizing of churches—as well as a missionary school and Christians' homes—fortunately did not have the demoralizing effect that the Muslims intended.
"They thought that we will not go back to the services," said Mahamadou Koche. But the pastor in Zinder had a plan to show Christ's love no matter the circumstances.
"But even if they burn the churches, they can't burn what we have already got inside of us," he said.
Public statements of forgiveness and open dialogue with the mosque showed many Muslims the depth of the Nigerien Christians' commitment to love their neighbors. Some neighbors showed remorse and some accepted Christ.
The churches, now with more members, continue to meet in temporary buildings while reconstruction takes place.
"Rebuilding the church physically will show to the world that we hold on to our faith and we're still Christians," Mahamadou said.
GIFTS AND FORGIVENESS FOR ENEMIES
At Boukoki Church in Niamey, pastor Yakaya Sherrif watched while his neighbors destroyed his church building, constructed by missionaries and one of only five churches in 1976. They tore off the roof. They destroyed the library. They were people he knew.
"I do believe somehow that this persecution is a fertilizer for the faith," he said.
He immediately organized a distribution of gifts to the children of those who burned the church: Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. The gifts were handed out at the ruined church.
When asked for what prayers he sought most, Yakaya requested strength, not a cessation to persecution. Persecution strengthens Christianity and is part of God's plan.
"We believe that God will continue to grace us with His blessing," Yakaya said.
Samaritan's Purse has provided a way for Christians to help support the rebuilding of Nigerien churches here.