More and more Christians in Burkina Faso are becoming victims of persecution. In a gesture of solidarity, a small delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) visited this country of West Africa recently, at the beginning of Lent. They met with Father Pierre Claver Belemsigri, the secretary general of the episcopal conference of Burkina and Niger, in Ouagadougou, the capital of the country. He spoke to ACN about Islam, jihadism and the response of the Catholic Church in the present situation.
Burkina Faso has always been proud of the spirit of harmonious coexistence between Christians and Muslims in the country. Nonetheless, many people are complaining that the Islam of today now has little in common with the Islam of their childhood. Do you agree?
We have been seeing changes for around twenty or thirty years now. This is due to the fact that for some years now certain Islamic ideologies originating on the Arabian Peninsula have been imported here. Young people are going there to work or study and returning with a particular vision of Islam that potentially has repercussions on our society and on the coexistence between the different religions.
In what ways is this reflected?
In the past, it was always the custom for those of both communities to gather together for all each other’s major events, both the happy and the sad ones. For example, Christians would congratulate the Muslim members of their families on their religious feasts, and vice versa. To clarify, it should be noted that we frequently have members of different faiths within a single family. Nonetheless, or perhaps precisely because of this, we have always celebrated these feasts together. Among the older generation this is still the case to this day. But among some of the younger people it is already by no means so self-evident as it once was, on account of the influence of certain radical Islamic tendencies.
Yet despite the fact that Muslims are a majority, between 54%-60%, Burkina Faso is not an Islamic state…
Precisely. We are a secular state and we apply the principle of the separation of religion and the state. This was a political decision that we took. Nonetheless, the state cooperates with the different religious communities, and we maintain a dialogue with the authorities.
And is the dialogue between Christians and Muslims also continuing, despite everything?
Yes, happily. There is a long tradition in our country of interreligious dialogue. For example, in the province of Soum, which is so harassed by the terrorists today, we have an interfaith organisation known as the “Fraternal Union of Believers” (Union fraternelle des croyants, UFC). It is a forum in which Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and members of traditional African religions can meet together to speak about mutual coexistence and the building of civil society. We visit each other’s ceremonies. For example, at Christmas the leaders of the Muslim community come to Mass and wish the Catholics a happy Christmas. And during Ramadan the bishop or the priests go to the mosques in the same way to offer their good wishes. The work of the UFC also centres on the different faiths working together for the mutual development of the local community.
We often hear it said that the jihadists are simply using Islam as a weapon and that they are in fact motivated by something other than religion. What do you think about this?
There is a lot of truth in both statements. There are those terrorists – whether from Burkina or from outside – who with guns in their hand really want to force the whole of Africa to become Islamic. They want to introduce sharia law to Burkina Faso. But there are also others who are using Islam as a pretext to advance their financial or criminal interests. It is enough to know that they are killing Muslims too. Often the violence in our country is also linked to ancient ethnic rivalries or land disputes. In such cases Islam is no more than a pretext to enable people to advance their material and economic interests by means of violence.
Dozens of Christians have been killed in the last few years. Who exactly is attacking them? Are they jihadists or simply criminals?
Often, we don’t even know who it is who is attacking us. We don’t know our enemy. In the majority of cases no one claims responsibility for the attacks.
Around 5% of the population are Protestants. Does the Catholic Church have an official dialogue with them?
Yes, there is a commission for this purpose. Though it should be noted that the Protestants in our country don’t belong to the traditional Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans or the Calvinists but instead belong to the so-called free churches, most of which are of American origin. But undoubtedly, the dialogue with Islam is better organised.
What kind of thing does the Catholic Church dialogue about with the Protestants?
The main focus of our dialogue and discussion centres around the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This gives us an opportunity to pray together and work to harmonise certain points of Christian theology, such as the mutual recognition of baptism in the different faith communities and the shared study and translation of the Bible in the different languages of the country (the Alliance Biblique). There’s also the question of the problems that arise as a result of mixed marriages.
Has the threat of terrorism brought the Protestants and Catholics closer together?
Yes, absolutely. Particularly in the villages that have been attacked, where Catholics and Protestants are united in mutual solidarity. But this solidarity is a human response and goes beyond our actual beliefs. Christians, Muslims, Protestants and members of the traditional religions have not failed to show this solidarity.
Around 10%-15% of the population are neither Muslims nor Christians but belong instead to traditional African religions. What is the relationship between the Church and these people?
The Church shows profound respect for these traditional religions, which are those of our ancestors. We see them as a preparation for the Word of God. But relations between the two are not always easy. For it often happens that baptised Christians continue to follow some of their ancestral practices. Of course, it goes without saying that the Church reminds them of their Christian duty. It should however be noted that our ancestral religion is a monotheistic one. There is only one God, yet at the same time a great number of beings who exercise a mediating role.
Is this syncretism widespread among Catholics?
The difficulty often lies in the separation between the cultic and the cultural. That said, it has to be admitted that syncretism is practised worldwide. And of course, we all respect the religion of our forefathers. But for us Christians, certain of their practices are in contradiction with our faith. We are trying to make them understand that Jesus Christ is the definitive solution to all our problems. But despite this, some people who find themselves in difficulties want to have immediate solutions to their problems, and so they turn back to the religion of their ancestors.
It is also true that Christianity has not been established for so very long in your country…
That is quite true. The traditional religions were there first. Then, around the 15th and 16th centuries, Islam began to be introduced. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the first French missionaries arrived in the territory that is now Burkina Faso. More systematic efforts at evangelization began to be undertaken from around 1900 onwards. But since that time Christianity has truly been implanted in our country.
Is it not seen by some as a relic of the French colonial period? For Burkina Faso was a French colony until 1960…
No. And that is thanks to the courageous missionaries and their witness to the faith, but at the same time to the fact that the traditional religion was a monotheistic religion. This monotheism made it easier for people to convert to Christianity. And the fact that we traditionally honour our mothers has likewise led to the veneration of the Mother of Jesus becoming a deeply rooted practice among the Catholics of our country. And we can also see a link between the honour paid to our ancestors and the veneration of the saints.
Is the faith growing in your country? For in practice around 25% of the Burkinabés – the people of Burkina – already belong to the Catholic Church.
The faith is growing. And not simply on account of demographic growth, but also because of genuine conversions to Christianity.
Does this not have consequences for them? After all, in many Muslim countries conversion is punishable by death…
Not to my knowledge, not here. In some circles there may be threats and social sanctions. But that depends greatly on the particular social environment. I have personally witnessed the baptism of an entire Muslim family. The daughter, who had attended a Catholic school run by nuns, was the first to convert, but then she brought her entire family to the faith. Besides, the recent terrorist attacks against Christians have actually strengthened the faith of the people. Despite the danger, the people are proud to be Catholics.
Nevertheless, this terrorism represents a very great challenge for the Church. How is she responding to it?
We are thinking hard about the best way to respond to this challenge. We are planning to organise a large forum this year, devoted to questions around pastoral care and security. It will be an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a Christian and how to live our life in the new context of insecurity and attacks on places of worship. It will undoubtedly be necessary to find new ways of expressing our Catholic faith. All these questions will no doubt be addressed in the course of this forum.
Faced by this terrorism, what are you hoping for your country?
The Lord is in control, Christ is alive. Our country has been witness to this on many occasions in its recent history. I hope that the same thing will happen now, in the face of this terrorism. There needs to be a national awakening and a popular resistance. Weapons alone are not enough. Sadly, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have understood that our country runs the risk of disappearing if we do not all unite together against the terrorists, in prayer, unity and solidarity. These are the challenges we must face in order to put an end to the terrorism.