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Muslim scholars call for calm in riot-hit Niger

NIAMEY: Some 20 Muslim scholars on Saturday called for calm in the Niger capital, where protesters torched seven churches and rampaged through the city to vent anger over French weekly Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) on its cover.

“Don’t forget that Islam is against violence. I urge men and women, boys and girls to calm down,” one of the Muslim elders, preacher Yaou Sonna, told state television in Niamey.

According to details, rioters burned at least eight churches in Niamey on Saturday in protest at the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) on the cover of France’s Charlie Hebdo weekly, an AFP correspondent reported.

It was the second day of violence in the west African country over the Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) caricatures, after four people were killed and 45 injured in protests in Niger’s second city of Zinder on Friday.

Bars, hotels and various businesses under non-Muslim ownership or bearing signs of French companies were also targeted on Saturday.

“Some of us stayed barricaded in our homes. I have never been so scared in my life,” a Christian mechanic told AFP.

“The government must put a stop to this,” he added. “It doesn’t look good for us.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, whose country has defended the Charlie Hebdo cover as freedom of expression, condemned “the use of violence, today in Niamey and yesterday in Zinder”.

About six groups of 200 to 300 protesters were believed to be rampaging through Niamey, a security source said.

“As soon as the protesters started toward the grand mosque we knew this was coming,” said Kiema Soumaila, manager of the Toulousain, a well-known bar in Niamey.

“They burned everything after smashing anything that was glass on the road,” Soumaila added.

Muslim elder Yaou Sonna, speaking on behalf of around 20 of his peers, called for restraint, saying on state television: “Don’t forget that Islam is against violence. I urge men and women, boys and girls to calm down.”

Around 100 helmeted riot police stood in front of the Niamey cathedral at midday, protecting it from a crowd of stone-throwing youths.

Police had used tear gas earlier in the day to disperse a crowd of about 1,000 young people massed in front of Niamey’s grand mosque who were armed with iron bars and clubs.

France’s embassy in its poverty-stricken former colony warned French citizens to stay indoors after rioters ransacked several French-linked businesses, including telephone kiosks run by Orange.

The satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo has repeatedly published cartoons of Mohammed over the years and its latest issue, released on Wednesday, features a cartoon of Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) on its cover holding a “Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie) sign under the headline “All Is Forgiven”.

It came a week after attacks by three Islamists on its offices, a kosher supermarket and a policewoman left 17 people dead in and around Paris over three days, deeply shocking the country and sparking an outpouring of international support.

Many Muslims see any depiction of Islam’s prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) as offensive, while many Western governments have defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of expression. -AFP

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