The bishops of Niger have canceled Masses and activities at Catholic schools, health care facilities and charity outreaches after Muslim extremists set fire to dozens of churches across the country.

Reports indicate that more than 40 churches were torched over the weekend to protest the new caricatures of Mohammed published by the Charlie Hebdo magazine in its latest edition. The publication of the images is a response to an attack on the satirical magazine in Paris earlier this month, which took place in retaliation for earlier depictions of the Muslim prophet.

In a statement, Bishops Laruent Lompo, Ambroise Quedraogo and Michel Cartateguy said the suspension of activities will allow them to pray and calmly consider "the painful events that we have had recently. We cordially thank all those who have expressed their solidarity at this difficult time."

In addition to the church burnings, nearly 300 people in Zinder were forced to seek refuge at a military base.

"The Christian community in Niger is still in a state of shock: Almost all the churches (of the diocese), 12 to 14 of them, were completely plundered. Nothing remains, they were totally burned," Archbishop Michel Cartateguy of Niamey told Vatican Radio.

"Only the cathedral is still standing," he said.

"We don't understand what is happening. I have told authorities that we have nothing against the Muslim community. On the contrary, we should strengthen the bonds of unity and fraternity that we have built even more," the archbishop said.

Despite all the support the bishops have received, he noted, "We have to suspend all activities in Catholic missions and close our schools."

The extremists behind these incidents "are being manipulated from abroad, everything is being manipulated," Archbishop Cartateguy emphasized. "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? Now there are people running throughout the streets asking, 'Are you Allah is great or Alleluia?' This means they are looking for Christians," the archbishop warned.