The situation in the Sahel region is worrying. In the interview below Maria Lozano of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN, speaks with Bishop Laurent B. DABIRE, of the diocese of Dori, in northern Burkina Faso. There has been some improvement in the security situation, the bishop assures her, but the terrorism is still far from being under control, and still further from being defeated. It continues to have a profound impact on the life of the people and of the Church. The situation is further complicated by the pandemic, which is proving to be persistent and unpredictable. “We are caught between two fronts”, Bishop Dabire explains, recalling that “Our hope will not be disappointed” (cf Rom 5:5)
How is the situation in the country generally?
The overall situation in the country is a grave one, given the security crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, which between them have profoundly affected the people. We are caught between two fronts. Fortunately, the incidence of the coronavirus has remained generally lower in Africa, although the increase in cases is worrying. The direct consequence of both these factors is a humanitarian crisis, both for those who have been uprooted and for those communities which have welcomed them. Despite the resilience of the population, the situation is very hard for the ordinary people, who live from hand to mouth and have lost their normal means of subsistence.
What is the situation like in the diocese of Dori? Have things calmed down there? Or have there been more violent incursions?
After a few months of peace, from April to September 2020, the territory of the diocese, which corresponds approximately to the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, has suffered at least ten incidents of terrorist attacks, from 10 September 2020 right up to the present day. The people continue to be forced to leave their villages, either as a result of the attacks or because of the threats to massacre them unless they do so. Nonetheless, these attacks have diminished in number and are causing fewer deaths. So it could be said that the security situation has improved, although it is still impossible to travel in certain areas, which remain dangerous owing to the presence or operations of the terrorist groups.
Is it possible for the Church, the priests, the religious sisters and catechists, to do their work in the diocese?
The parishes of Aribinda and Gorgadji remain completely cut off and there is no pastoral activity there whatsoever. In these two areas the central parishes have been emptied of Christians and the villages served by them, where there are still a few Christians remaining, are inaccessible owing to the danger of travelling on the roads. The parish of Djibo is operating at a minimal level, thanks to the presence of one catechist. In the other parishes, which are still open – namely Dori, Sebba and Gorom-Gorom – the pastoral activities are restricted to the parish centres. Here all the activities are continuing on a regular basis, with occasional changes to the timings and with the appropriate sanitary measures against the coronavirus.
You have had five years of insecurity by now. How have the communities of believers adapted to this situation?
The diocese of Dori is continuing to function and guarantee a Catholic presence in the Sahel, albeit in a smaller area and with difficulty. Our priests organise the Masses, catechesis, the sacraments and the pastoral meetings on a daily basis. The religious sisters, with the exception of two communities which have been closed, are taking care of the other diocesan activities, such as the primary school in Dori, the Dori girls’ school, the Good Shepherd missionary welcome centre, which is also in Dori, and the “Les Dunes” centre in Gorom-Gorom, which includes an orphanage, a maternity unit, a dispensary and pharmaceutical store and guestrooms. In addition the sisters help with the pastoral activities such as catechesis, liturgy, supporting the Catholic Action movements and the spiritual groups and associations. The catechists are grouped among the main towns of the still functioning parishes and devote themselves to catechesis in the local languages, to the liturgy and above all to animating the basic Christian communities to which they belong. The diocese also keeps in touch with the other dioceses of the country and takes part in the national meetings.
How are the Catholics coping with such a difficult situation?
Our faithful have a great spirit of perseverance and resilience. They continue to live their faith, whatever the cost. Not once since 2015 have we heard of any case of desertion, abandonment or apostasy. The faithful are fleeing the terrorism, which they are powerless to resist, but they are keeping their faith. Even when the terrorists have threatened people, trying to force them to convert, they have not succeeded. The people have simply fled, bringing their faith with them. In Gorom-Gorom and Sebba there has been some cooling off on the part of some of the faithful who, for fear of the attacks, are no longer coming to Sunday Mass. This is also noticeable at the level of some of the other pastoral activities. So our pastoral workers need to find strategies to encourage and support these weaker members of the community. “Our hope will not be disappointed” (cf Rom 5:5).
How were you able to celebrate Christmas and Epiphany in this context?
In the three fully functioning parishes, and in Djibo as well, the Christmas Masses were celebrated with joy and by a great throng of the faithful. On the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord – given that Epiphany was too early this year – we celebrated the Children’s Christmas in all the parishes, with the usual attendance in large numbers of Muslim children as well. In Djibo, where we had to cancel the celebration due to the particular situation there, the Muslim children clamoured for it and I was forced to reinstate it. We celebrated it last Sunday 24 January and it went really well. Three cheers for the children!
The bishops’ conference, of which you have been president since 2019, also includes the neighbouring country of Niger. What news do you have of Niger?
I have very little news from there. I only know that the attacks have continued there as well, often with high numbers of deaths. There too the insecurity, combined with the pandemic, has caused a slowdown in pastoral activities. For this reason also the two bishops from Niger have been unable to take part in our episcopal assemblies since February 2020.