A day after militants ambushed a church and killed six, another attack in northern Burkina Faso targeting Christians has left four dead, including a church leader. These attacks on the church in the West African country, as well as others in the last few weeks, have invoked a state of panic among Christian communities in the region.
The country's churches have seen a string of violence in less than three weeks. This most recent attack happened on Monday, May 13, during a public religious procession when armed men ambushed the parade. Reportedly, the attackers let the children go before killing four adults and destroying the statue of Mary the victims were carrying.
Also on Monday, suspected militants shot a Catholic priest in Dolbel in neighboring western Niger, one of the countries bordering Burkina Faso. He survived the attack with gunshot wounds to one hand and a leg.
Just a day earlier, 20 to 30 armed men ambushed a church service in the same region in the village of Dablo and opened fire on worshippers. Six people were killed in the attack in Burkina Faso, among them the church’s 34-year-old leader. Before they left, the attackers burned down the church, various shops and a health center.
And two weeks ago, armed men stormed a Protestant church after a worship service in Silgadji village in the country’s northeastern province of Soum. They executed six worshippers, including the church’s 80-year-old pastor,
A State of Panic in Northern Burkina Faso
Fearful of more attacks, Christians in northern Burkina Faso are beginning to flee the conflict area for safer towns in the country’s southern area.
Those who remain are living in what is rapidly feeling more and more like a ghost town.
Churches and schools are now closed. And Christians are in hiding, said a local church leader who asked to be unnamed for security reasons. He told Open Doors: “No one dares to sleep in his house because of fear of being killed. It’s very hard for us. We need your prayers.”
The same scene is happening in Dablo, the place of Sunday's church attack. Mayor Ousmane Zongo told the BBC that the attack in his village has residents living in a state of panic and fear. “People are holed up in their homes, nothing is going on," he said. “The shops and stores are closed. It’s practically a ghost town.”
Some leaders took to social media to voice their outrage over the attacks and the trend of targeting churches, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres who tweeted, "Houses of worship should be havens, not targets."
Responding to the May 12 attack, European Parliament President Antionio Tajani also tweeted: “The genocide against Christians around the world must stop.”
Reportedly, Paul Ouedraogo, president of the Episcopal conference of Burkina Faso and Nigertold other area bishops. “All of this indicates that our West African region is strongly troubled.”
In the last 12 months, the increasing violence across Mali and Niger, as well as Burkina Faso, has led to a five-fold rise in the displacement of the local population. More than 330,000 people have left their homes, in addition to 100,000 refugees —creating what some news outlets have called an "unexpected humanitarian crisis."
Burkina Faso No. 61 in Open Doors' World Watch List Research
While Burkina Faso is not one of the 50 countries on the 2019 World Watch List, it isn’t far behind at No. 61. Over the last year, Open Doors' World Watch List research unit has begun researching the West African country that has jumped into our list of countries we’re watching closely.
In the past two years, the country has seen a rise in attacks by Islamist militants following the 2014 removal of long-time ruler Blaise Compaoré. The shootings happened just days after warnings from top UN humanitarian officials including Metsi Makhetha, the UN Resident Coordinator in Burkina Faso, of an “unprecedented” rise in “sophisticated armed attacks in the Sahel,” which are putting the future of a “whole generation” at stake, she said.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, reported fatalities from attacks targeting civilians have risen by 300 percent in Mali (No. 24 on the World Watch List), 500 percent in Niger, and a staggering 7,000 percent increase in Burkina Faso compared to the same period last year.
The news agency reports that “home-grown militant groups, as well as extremists linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, have been in the country’s north (bordering Mali) since 2016, but have expanded to new fronts in the east and southwest, threatening the stability of neighboring countries.”
Who & What Are Behind the Attacks?
Statements and remarks from national and community leaders seem to indicate they believe the attacks are driven by Islamic extremists and a specific strategy: create division and conflict among the country's various religious groups.
In the nation of 19.7 million people, Christians make up 25 percent, Muslims 54.5 percent and ethno-religionists 19.9 percent. The country has long been known for the peaceful co-existence between these different religious communities, unlike neighboring Mali.
After Sunday’s attack in Burkina Faso in Dablo, the government of Burkina Faso blamed “terrorist groups ... attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us.” However, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged “all citizens of Burkina Faso to stand firmly with one another across communities and not to succumb to efforts to sow discord and breed further violence.”
A day after the killings on April 30, the Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions (FEME) in Burkina Faso also called for unity.
In a public statement, FEME President Henri Yé said: “In the face of blind hatred, let us ask God to give us the strength to spread love, which makes us the children of God. The unity of the Body of Christ and of the whole nation must be preserved at all costs.”