Jihadists remove cross revered by Muslims and Catholics in Niger

Cross was seen as a symbol of prayer and the Gospel in a remote parish started by an Italian missionary priest kidnapped by Islamic extremists 
La Croix International staff,  May 29, 2020

The cross erected as a symbol of prayer and the Gospel in the parish started by an Italian missionary priest kidnapped by suspected jihadists in Niger has been “removed”.  The iron cross was fixed on a hilltop in 1995, the year the Bomoanga Parish was created in the Catholic Archdiocese of Niamey.  The site of the cross, according to testimonies gathered, was the place where Father Pierluigo Maccalli of the Society of African Missions was kidnapped by suspected jihadists in September 2018.

The parish is in a remote, isolated and impoverished area lacking in education, water supplies and basic infrastructure like roads and communications.  Parishioners would often pray around the cross for rain during the severe drought season. “It rained heavily every time, before the prayer even ended,” Father Mauro Armanino, the kidnapped priest’s confrere told Agenzia Fides.

Muslims of the village often invited Catholics, given the “empirical” efficacy of prayer, to gather at the cross a couple of miles from the village, to pray for particular needs.  “The cross, high and made of iron, was seen from the village, up to two weeks ago”, said Father Armanino.  But on May 15 unknown men climbed on the hill and tore down the cross, solidly screwed to the concrete with rust-proof bolts. They removed the cross and then placed it on a stone not far away, said the missionary.

“It is believed that it was carried out by those whom the press and people call the jihadists, armed and sometimes hooded, who terrify Christians and the people of the villages in the region,” said Father Armanino.

The missionary pointed out that these people at the beginning of the month visited the village chief to tell him of their plan, threatening the chief to avoid reporting them to government forces. They also threatened the chief against cutting trees, avoiding consuming alcohol and “refusing everything that is not Islam,” he said. These threats are typical of the group who enforce their beliefs. “They, thanks to their weapons and the abandonment of the Defense and Security Forces, keep the local farmers and in particular the Christians in a constant state of fear,” he said.

That is why Catholics for some time now, no longer meet in the church that Father Pierluigi had built for them and with them, said Father Armanino. “Fear pushes them to pray in houses and the church doors are closed.” The cross that was removed was a “symbol… from the heart of the people and the faith lived in the Gospel that liberates,” he said. However, “farmers in the region are patient and know well that the cross is written on the earth that no one will be able to take away”, said Father Armanino.

Earlier, Aid to the Church in Need reported in April that Father Maccalli is still alive, according to a proof-of-life video probably filmed in late March. The priest is seen in a 24-second video that also featured Italian tourist Nicola Ciacco, the second European national to be kidnapped in 2018 in the predominantly Islamic West African nation of 21 million people.

Father Maccali had been working as a missionary in Bomoanga Parish after transferring there from Ivory Coast. He was involved with micro-credit projects for development and had vocally opposed local practices such as female circumcision, which remains widespread in parts of Africa.

With permission from La Croix International