Bishops suspend all Catholic masses in Niger as Charlie Hebdo protests continue

Protests triggered by the latest Charlie Hebdo magazine cover have led to Catholic masses and activities being cancelled throughout Niger.

The bishops of Niger have been forced to suspend activities at Catholic schools, health care facilities and charities, Catholic News Agency reports. Dozens of churches have been the subject of arson attacks following the publication of cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad in satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. At least 10 people have been killed.

The violence erupted in the city of Zinder, Niger's second largest city, last week. It then spread throughout other regions, with demonstrators setting fire to churches, Christian schools and shops.

"They offended our Prophet Mohammad, that's what we didn't like," said Amadou Abdoul Ouahab, who took part in the demonstrations in Niger's capital, Niamey.

Archbishop Michel Cartateguy of Niamey told Vatican Radio that Christians in Niger are "in a state of shock". Almost all of the churches in his diocese have been "completely plundered," he said.

"Nothing remains, they were totally burned. Only the cathedral is still standing."

The Archbishop added that he doesn't understand why Christians in particular are being targeted by the Muslim protestors, though he suspects that those perpetuating the violence "are being manipulated from abroad".

"It's obvious that the millions of copies of the Mohammed cartoons being distributed are saying to the people here that the Christians of the West are the ones who have done this!" he said.

"But why keep going down this road? Where is the respect for the faith of others?"

Bishops Laurent Lompo, Ambroise Quedraogo and Michel Cartateguy have released a statement in light of the attacks. They said the suspension of activities will give space for increased prayer, and allow the Christian community to reflect on "the painful events" of the past few days.

"We cordially thank all those who have expressed their solidarity at this difficult time," the bishops said.

Pope Francis earlier this week condemned the violence in Niger. "One cannot make war in God's name," he said during his weekly audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday.

"Religious sentiments are never an occasion for violence, oppression and destruction," the pope added, calling for prayer for "reconciliation and peace" and a "climate of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence for the good of all."

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou has also condemned the protests. "Those who pillage religious sites and profane them, those who persecute and kill their Christian compatriots or foreigners who live on our soil, have understood nothing of Islam," he said in a televised address last week.

17 journalists were killed by jihadists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on 7 January in Paris. The murders sparked debate about the freedom of speech and the right to satirise religion.