Yesterday, Catholic Relief Services hosted a reception for us at their Niamey headquarters in Niger. It was a lovely celebration. My favorite part was following local custom and pulling mutton meat right off the bone with my fingers. The whole sheep was there, and we all partook of it. Messy, but delicious.
During the reception, I met Fr. Maria Joseph, SMA, an Indian priest working in Niger. He’s been stationed at St. Gerard Parish in Doutchi for the last three years. I asked him about what it’s like being a priest in a predominantly Muslim country.
“There’s no religious tension here,” he said, flatly, explaining that 95 percent of the population was Muslim, and the other five percent were animist or Christian. “The archbishop maintains a good relationship with Islam.”
He was referring to Archbishop Micel Cartatéguy, who we’ll meet this morning. Fr. Joseph said the Church was a “witnessing organization in Niger,” recognized by the government. “We have collaboration on all levels.”
Fr. Joseph said he works with Muslims through interreligious dialogue and serving the community. Muslims work at CRS as well as at Caritas Niger, he said. “We couldn’t extend service to others were it not for the help we receive from outside of Niger,” he added. “Through CRS, we can reach out to the people more easily.”
Fr. Joseph said there are few Christian villages, though he maintains seven outstations. He has “many catechumens, but few Christians.” His mission is first objective to serve those in need, regardless of religion, he said.
‘There are so many reasons why Niger suffers in poverty, many of which are political,” Fr. Joseph said. “There’s problems between politicians and Muslims, but not between Muslims and Christians.”