Burkina Faso: “The world doesn’t seem to have understood that our country runs the risk of disappearing”

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.

Father Pierre Claver Belemsigri.
Father Pierre Claver Belemsigri.

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.

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.


Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.


What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.


Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.


¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.