At a time when Christians-Muslim relations are discussed daily in nearly every corner of the world, Niger in West Africa remains one of the best examples of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence between the two faiths.
“When the majority population is so large, there can sometimes be a tendency toward dominance, but not in Niger,” said mission co-worker Claire Zuhosky. The country is about 98 percent Muslim and only two percent Christian.
The peacefulness was tested in January 2015 when 10 people were killed and 70 churches were burned in protest of a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad that appeared in France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine.
After the attacks, wanting to provide support, Pastor Kadade, president of the EERN (Evangelical Church in Niger) visited the damage areas and said his group heard multiple instances where Muslim friends and neighbors rallied, standing in front of protestors and preventing churches from destruction during the protests. He said many of the burned-out congregations met in tents the following Sunday, declaring that “nothing stands in the way of Christ.” All the pastors preached forgiveness and told their church members that “God was using them for a higher purpose.”
EERN is the largest Protestant church in Niger, and in recent decades the church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have worked as partners in mission. EERN has a strong commitment to sharing hospitality with its Muslim neighbors. Fulani Nomads (Islamic herders and traders) know that as they cross the Sahel (a transitional zone between the Sahara desert and Sudanian savannas) on foot with their livestock they are welcome to stay for several days at the EERN church. The churches are known as “misericorde,” places of refuge.
Debbie Braaksma, who heads the Africa area office for World Mission, said one of the experiences she cherishes from her recent visit to Niger, was accompanying EERN President Kadade to visit his very good friend who is an Imam. “We had time to pray together and the Imam said, ‘our prayer is for peace. We must live together in peace,’” Braaksma said. “He said because of the close relationships between Christians and Muslims in his community, such as his friendship with Rev. Kadade, the community was not torn apart by the violence.”
Zuhosky said that each day, in some way, she sees the way Christians and a Muslims share a connection, “a connection from which so much perspective can be shared, when peering into each other's lives makes the Light shine through all the cracks.”
She experienced that first-hand on March 15, 2015. While staying in the EERN guest house, her room caught fire and she lost everything, including the only photos and videos of her deceased mother. Her church family supported her in every way, but there was also support from unexpected places.
“I was told of how my Muslim friend, a man I buy pop from on the corner, who tries valiantly to teach me a little Hausa each time I am there, had jumped the wall and tried to assist with putting out the fire. Sometimes you never know the connections you have made until circumstances like these make them self-evident,” said Zuhosky.
Zuhosky is working in Niger as a development specialist at a youth center where she teaches life skill training and vocational education, which are generally not available through formal education sectors. Teens in Niger comprise about 60 percent of the population. She said the young people in Niger, 13-35, face the temptation of drugs, alcohol and sexual misconduct. Without constructive ways to focus their energy, they are susceptible to groups like Boko Haram. She hopes to help them become stronger in their faith.
Niger is often referred to as the gateway between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Near the bottom of the UN’s human development index, it is one of Africa’s most economically impoverished countries. Fewer than 50 percent of children are enrolled in school. Farming is difficult, subject to frequent droughts.
To support Claire Zuhosky’ s ministry in Niger, make a gift online at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E200517/ or by mail: Presbyterian World Mission, P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700.