Protesters torch Niger church after imam arrest

Protesters torched a church overnight in the southern Niger city of Maradi after the arrest of a prominent imam who was subsequently freed Sunday, religious and security sources told AFP.

Sheikh Rayadoune, the imam of the Zaria mosque in Maradi, was detained Saturday after criticising a proposed law on religious worship as “anti-Islam” a day earlier.

He has appealed to his supporters to end the unrest.

The group behind the church attack also burned the pastor’s car, a church official said in a WhatsApp message to parishioners that was copied to AFP.

A local security source confirmed the incident in Maradi’s working-class district of Zaria.

Witnesses said that late Saturday youths set up roadblocks and burned tyres in the streets of Niger’s third largest city as news of the imam’s arrest spread.

A police source told AFP that Sheikh Rayadoune had been released Sunday afternoon, adding: “He has acknowledged his mistake and has apologised.”

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Shortly before his release, the imam published a statement appealing for calm.

“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 message said.

The imam said he had read a bad translation of the draft law, which had been transcribed from French into Hausa, Niger’s main language.

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He added that he would rectify his position at Friday prayers.

– Law not ‘anti-Islam’ –

A top interior ministry official said the legislation, designed to lay down official guidelines on worship, was “the fruit of many consultations… There’s nothing anti-Islam in the text.”

He said it was aimed at preventing “anarchy and the distortions promoted by obscurantist terrorist groups to gain ground in our country.”

In 2017, the interior ministry brought together all the overwhelmingly Muslim though secular West African country’s ulemas or religious scholars to discuss the subject.

The government adopted a draft bill in late April, saying there was a “total absence of norms” regarding worship in Niger while fundamentalist and extremist tendencies were on the rise.

“To head off risks of abuse seen in other countries … it is vital the state gives itself the means to control practices in the religious sphere,” the statement added.

Parliament still has to vote through the text before it becomes law.

Niger has experienced several bouts of religious strife in recent years.

Following the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in 2015 ten people were killed in anti-Christian riots in Niamey. Several churches were destroyed in the capital and second city Zinder.

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