Burkina Faso: Living with terror in the “land of people of integrity”

An attack in the diocese of Dori, on Sunday 25 February, was just the latest in a string of terror strikes in Burkina Faso. Faced with persecution, the Church responds with charity and hope.

When Mgr. Justin Kientega became Bishop of Ouahigouya, in the northwest of Burkina Faso, in 2010, he used to be able to travel easily to the border with Mali. Since 2015, however, everything has changed, and now there are parts of his own diocese that are off-limits due to the activity of terrorist groups that want to impose radical Islam on the population.

Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso
Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso

“The terrorists come by motorcycle to the villages, they gather the people and tell them not to go to school, not to obey public administration, and instruct the men to grow their beards, and the women to wear the Islamic veil. Sometimes they take one person and kill him in front of everyone”, the bishop recalled, during an online conference organised by pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)

In other places the population is given an ultimatum to leave their homes and not return. Christians, a minority in this region, often face harsher instructions and punishments. “There is no freedom to worship. In some villages they allow people to pray, but forbid catechism; in other places, they tell the Christians not to gather in the church to pray. This leads many to leave. In my diocese, two of the parishes are closed because the priests had to leave, and two others are blockaded, nobody can come in or get out.”

The attack on Sunday was just the most recent example. “There were 47 people in the Chapel for Sunday morning celebration of the Word, led by their catechist. There were 17 men and the rest were women and children. The terrorists came and killed 12 – 9 people were killed at the chapel and 3 others died from their injuries – all males, but there were also two children among the dead, a four-year-old and a 14-year-old.”

Humanitarian disaster

The situation of ongoing persecution has caused a humanitarian disaster, with thousands of people fleeing villages to move to cities or towns where they can count on the protection of the police and army. “In all the towns Christians are doing their best to help these people. In many parishes they are welcomed, they try to find food for them”, says the bishop.

Bishop Justin Kientega says that over 200 schools have had to close, including 30 Catholic schools, which used to be examples of intercommunal harmony, with many Muslim families entrusting their children to the care of the Church-run institutions. Burkina Faso had such a reputation for mutual respect among different communities, that the name of the country literally means “Land of the Honest People”. All this leads the bishop to ask who it is that is instrumentalising these young people, and leading them to commit these atrocities.

Creation of two emergency spaces for the pastoral care of displaced Christians
Creation of two emergency spaces for the pastoral care of displaced Christians

“We ask ourselves how did this happen? Who is supporting them? Who is funding them? Some of them are Burkinabe, our brothers, and they don’t even cover their faces. But the question is why? Why are they kidnapping and killing people? Why are they coming to take the goods and animals, burning villages?”

Bishop Kientega explains that in many cases unemployed youth are lured into terrorist organisations with promises of work. Still, the details of who is bankrolling these groups and providing them with weapons remains a mystery to him. He is, however, grateful to the civil authorities and armed forces for their effort in supporting the population, and for working with the Church to coordinate relief efforts. “The civil government is really doing its best. They organise convoys to take food to the villages that are blockaded. The army is also doing its best to help the people. The state is the one which knows the needs of the displaced, and when we have help, they give us guidelines, so that people get what they need to have a better life, though the challenges are many.”

“Faith has grown”

Despite the difficulties and the persecution faced by the minority Christians, Bishop Justin Kientega says that none of them cave in to the demands of the terrorists to embrace Islam. “In this situation some of the Christians accept to die. Many even refused to remove the crosses they wear. In some places Christian women were obliged to cover themselves, but they refuse to convert to Islam. They always try to find other ways to live their faith, and to pray.”

He goes so far as to say that “faith has grown”, as the Church has been forced to adapt.

In fact, the terrorist threat has had a different effect, which also worries the Church. “There are situations of misery that are pushing people back to practices of traditional religions. For example, wearing clothes or amulets that supposedly protect one from harm.”

Faithful praying during a celebration
Faithful praying during a celebration

Nonetheless, he recalls one situation where the witness of a local priest had an effect even on those who cling to their ancestral practices. “I travelled to Bourzanga and the chief, who is a traditional religion practitioner, told me they were happy the priest had stayed, because he is a source of strength for them. All the help the parish priest receives, he shares with everybody, Christians, Muslims and traditional believers. He said that the priest values humanity and does not discriminate.”

This witness of faith and charity in the face of persecution is evident also when Bishop Kientega he lists the many sources of help that the local Church receives. “We know that the Pope is close to us, and we feel the presence of the universal Church. We are partnered with the diocese of Limoges, in France, and they pray for us every day. We get help from ACN, which bring us things that we need. But the main thing is to pray that the Lord will touch the hearts of these terrorists. We pray for their conversion every day. This is very important, that they may convert.”

Aid to the Church in Need has several projects in Burkina Faso, and a high-level delegation was recently in the country to assess the situation. The international Catholic charity has already stated that the Sahel region, which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, is one of its priorities for 2024.


By Filipe d’Avillez.

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