The small West African nation of Burkina Faso has an unpleasant distinction: It’s one of the world’s hotspots for violent Christian persecution.
No, there isn’t the mass government control of the church the way there is in China or the kind of ethnic cleansing one sees in Myanmar. Instead, Islamist groups have engaged in a series of attacks on the country’s Christians — in particular Catholics — killing scores in attacks upon churches.
The sad process played out again Monday.
“Gunmen killed twenty-four people, including a pastor, in an attack on a church during Sunday mass in northwestern Burkina Faso, four security sources told Reuters on Monday,” the news agency reported.
“It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attack, which comes as jihadist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State seek to gain control over once peaceful rural Burkina Faso, fuelling ethnic and religious conflict.”
The attacks have killed hundreds and displaced over half a million people.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said that the 1,000 percent increase in displaced people made it “world’s fastest-growing displacement crisis,” according to Reuters.
“Attacks by jihadists groups have surged in the past year in Burkina Faso and across the broader Sahel region, an arid expanse of scrubland just south of the Sahara desert,” they reported. “They have worked to sow ethnic tensions between farming and herding communities in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in order to boost recruitment among marginalized communities.”
“It hurt me when I saw the people,” Sihanri Osangola Brigadie, the mayor of the Boundore commune, told Deutsche Welle after visiting them in a hospital over 100 miles from the attack.
In May of 2019, the U.K. Catholic Herald reported on a spate of similar attacks in villages where small numbers of worshipers were killed.
While reports identified the parties as “unidentified armed individuals,” the Catholic Herald said they were believed to be members of an Islamist group.
These weren’t just a small number of gunmen who would shoot at believers and quickly run away.
“The first reported incident took place on Sunday, May 12, when up to 30 gunmen burst into a Mass in the village of Dablo,” the Catholic Herald reported. “They killed six people, including the celebrant, then burnt down the church.
“The following day, four Catholics were murdered during a Marian procession in the town of Ouahigouya. The killers set fire to a statue of the Virgin Mary before they left.”
The three terrorist groups involved were Ansar ul Islam, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims and the Islamic State Group in the Greater Sahara. At that time, only 100,000 people had fled their homes.
Violent persecution over religion is a relatively new phenomenon in Burkina Faso, which the Catholic Herald noted was “previously regarded as a model of peaceful co-existence between Islam and Christianity. Roughly 60 per cent of the 19 million population are Muslim. Nineteen per cent are Catholic, the fruits of French missionary work that began in 1896, when colonialists arrived in the region which became known as Upper Volta.”
The U.K. Independent reported that 2019 was a horrific year for religious violence in Burkina Faso, with 1,300 civilians killed by targeted attacks. That’s more than seven times the previous year.
“Perpetrators use victims’ links to government or their faith to justify the killings, while others appear to be reprisal killings for killings by the government security forces,” Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch said.
According to Open Doors USA, a Christian nonprofit, the most visible of the attacks began in April of last year after five Christians were killed leaving church in northern Burkina; the five refused to renounce Jesus and were shot.
The group says that converts are the most adversely affected.
“Christians of Muslim background are the most persecuted Christian group in the country,” the group says on its website. “Family and community members reject them and attempt to force them to renounce their Christian faith. Believers are afraid to express their faith in public because of such threats.”
“The outburst of killings during the 12-month reporting period has created an environment of fear. Many Christians are too scared to attend church services or send their children to school. Some churches have stepped up security.”
Christian persecution like this doesn’t make headlines. By now, we’re inured to violence by Islamist groups, particularly against people of other faiths.
When we look away, we too are complicit.
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