In the latest assault on Christians in the once-peaceful West African country of Burkina Faso, at least 14 people were shot and killed Sunday during worship at a Protestant church. According to a government statement, unidentified gunmen executed “the faithful, including the pastor and children” and then fled on scooters.
No group has taken responsibility for the attack, which occurred in the eastern village of Hantoukoura, but experts say it’s similar to the jihadist terrorism that has escalated in Africa’s Sahel region. Since 2015, more than 1,000 people have been killed, and an estimated half a million have fled their homes out of fear.
During the past month, Christians were targeted at least five times—but they’re not the only victims. In October, 15 worshipers were killed at a mosque in northern Burkina Faso, and in November 37 employees of a Canadian mining company died in an ambush. French tourists were kidnapped in a national park in May but were later released.
Tolerance Gives Way to “climate of panic” in Sahel Region
Burkina Faso, a former French colony, has a lengthy history of religious tolerance. Of its 19 million residents, about two-thirds are Muslim and one-third are Christian, and members of both faiths had been living in harmony. But after Islamist militants assumed control in bordering Mali, fighting spread into Burkina Faso, a poor country with high unemployment and failing infrastructure.
Those conditions, experts say, are ideal for jihadists to recruit fighters—including residents who do so just to survive. According to The Economist, some new recruits merely “adopt the ‘jihadist’ label because they happen to be Muslim.”
Djallil Lounnas, an expert on the Sahel, says militant groups are shifting strategies. Previously, he says, “Religious minorities have not been touched, especially Christian minorities.” But now, adds terrorism researcher Louis Audet-Gosselin, groups are using “an old guerrilla, terrorist tactic to increase their ranks by fueling mass violence.”
Despite increased security measures, one resident describes a “climate of panic” in Burkina Faso, which has become known as a place where it’s too dangerous to attend school. More than 1,000 schools have recently closed in the north alone, causing an educational crisis. Many young people are reportedly becoming radicalized.
The Church Will Survive, Say Christian Leaders
Jihadists want to “create hate [and] differences,” says victim advocate Chrysogone Zougmore, so they’re “planting seeds of a religious conflict.” But faith leaders in Burkina Faso are determined to not only survive but grow stronger amid persecution.
Philippe Ouedraogo, archbishop of Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou, urges Christians to stand firm. “We will not get bogged down in this dynamic, this ethnic, religious disarray,” he recently told a team from Open Doors. “We are a people, we will remain a people, the grains of a single basket.”
At a July conference of African bishops, Ouedraogo told church leaders they need to continue being “a sign of hope”—especially when “confronted with the anguish of our people.”
Pastor Bamjoraa Philip told visitors from Open Doors that Christians in Burkina Faso are “overwhelmed” and need help, love, and prayers.