According to sources close to the international Catholic charity and pastoral foundation ACN, the Christian population in the north of Burkina Faso are currently being exterminated or expelled from their villages by Muslim extremists in the country. The most recent villages to have been abandoned are those of Hitté and Rounga, where the inhabitants have been given an ultimatum by the Islamic terrorists, ordering them to convert to Islam or leave their homes. “They are by no means the only ones facing this situation, rather they are just part of a programme by the jihadists who are deliberately sowing terror, assassinating members of the Christian communities and forcing the remaining Christians to flee after notifying them that they will return in three days time – and that they do not wish to find any Christians or catechumens still there.”

The first place to be attacked, towards the end of May this year, was the village of Toulfé, where the jihadists murdered five people, including one catechist, during a religious celebration, wounding another catechist at the same time. “From Touflé the extremists moved on to the town of Babo, where they again delivered a similar ultimatum. Many of the residents fled, while those who remained had to witness the terrorists assassinating three people, including a community leader named Jean-Paul who had chosen to stay on as leader and organise prayer groups.”

Hitté is the most recent place to have been threatened. “At the beginning of September, 16 men arrived in the village, intercepting the villagers who were returning from the fields. Some of the men forced the people to enter the church where they threatened the Christians and ordered them to leave their homes in the next three days, while others set fire to whatever they found in their path. Now Hitté is empty of any Christians and any catechumens”, ACN’s source confirmed. After that the armed men continued to advance upon Rounga, which has now similarly been evacuated.

“Almost 2000 people have fled these two villages alone. They have found temporary shelter in a primary school in the village of Ouindigui”, ACN was told. Another neighbouring village which has been taking in these refugees since the beginning of the persecution is Titao, where almost 7000 uprooted victims of the violence have sought refuge. The local Catholic Church is organising social and pastoral support for these people [via Caritas], including medical care for the sick and the elderly and counselling and psychological help for the traumatised population.

“The situation is proving very difficult to cope with, but it has prompted a spirit of solidarity among the rest of the population in Titao, including the local Muslims, who do not share the radical extremism of the terrorists and who are helping the local church to provide food and water to alleviate the basic needs of the refugees”, the sources report.

Islamist attacks – Christians in northern Burkina Faso are being attacked, expelled and murdered, village by village

Islamist attacks – Christians in northern Burkina Faso are being attacked, expelled and murdered, village by village

The local authorities in Titao are equally touched by the painful and dramatic situation the region is going through. However, “the government authorities are not responding to the reports they are receiving”.

ACN’s sources likewise reproach the government authorities, including the police and the local gendarmerie, for their unwillingness to help, notably in the recovery of the bodies of the Christians who have been murdered. “They are raising all kinds of difficulties about helping to recover the bodies and give them a fitting burial; they say it is not safe and is very difficult. In fact in some cases the security forces are refusing to help. On one occasion the daughters of the victims plucked up courage and set out on tricycles to find their parents’ bodies so that they could bury them. Those from Babo faced an equally difficult task; they had to go there by night, on mopeds, to recover the bodies and bring them back to Titao. Needless to say, the bodies had already begun to decompose. Afterwards many people experienced health problems. It is quite inhuman.”

ACN’s sources confirmed that “often the majority of the terrorists are members of the Peul  (Fulani) people; however we must not accuse all the Peuls.” The causes behind the current situation are bigger forces: “Someone is persuading these people to take up weapons and is providing them with weapons to kill their brethren with whom they have lived in peace for years until now. For in fact, although there are a number of foreigners among the terrorists, the majority of them are not foreigners. They are Peuls who have been living in the region for years. Their families are known to us, and yet from one day to the next they have become enemies of the people. These people are being manipulated”, ACN’s sources insist.

Nonetheless, the real parties responsible for the crisis and the increase in violence in the country have to be sought abroad. “Weapons like these are not made in Burkina Faso. We know that the people supplying these arms are international organisations which have no real concern for humanity but care only for their profits. We are calling for the removal of these weapons, so that peace can return to Burkina Faso”, the sources urge.

If not, the consequences could be extremely serious, explains the source. “Peace has to be restored immediately, for if not, there could well be reprisals. The people know that ‘it was so-and-so who killed my father or my brother’. It is very difficult. After such barbaric deeds people become deaf to the idea of peace. Besides, these people have lost everything, and their harvests are also going to be lost, which will result in a famine. The situation is critical. Please pray to God to touch people’s hearts, so that peace may return.”

“If the world continues to do nothing, the result will be the elimination of the Christian presence in this area and quite possibly in future from the entire country.” These were the warning words given to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) by Bishop Laurent Birfuoré Dabiré of the diocese of Dori, in the northeast of Burkina Faso, following the umpteenth attack against Christians in the country recently.

The latest incidents took place on 27 June, but the news had only come through now. “It happened in the neighbouring diocese of Ouahigouya, the bishop explained, “when the people of the village of Bani had gathered together to speak among themselves. The islamists arrived and forced everybody to lie face down on the ground. Then they searched them. Four people were wearing crucifixes. So they killed them because they were Christians. After murdering them, the Islamists warned all the other villages that if they did not convert to Islam they too would be killed.

Bishop Laurent Birfuoré Dabiré of the diocese of Dori, in the northeast of Burkina Faso.

Bishop Laurent Birfuoré Dabiré of the diocese of Dori, in the northeast of Burkina Faso.

This is the fifth attack against Christians since the beginning of the year in the northeast of the country, bringing the number of Christians killed to 20. The attacks have affected the three dioceses of Dori, Kaya and Ouahigouya. According to Bishop Dabiré, the action of these Islamic fundamentalists has intensified since 2015. “At first they were only active in the frontier region between Mali and Niger. But slowly they have moved into the interior of the country, attacking the army, the civil structures and the people. Today their main target appears to be the Christians and I believe they are trying to trigger an interreligious conflict.”

Although initially it was thought that the extremist were all foreigners, over time it has been discovered that there are also some Burkinabé among them. “They include youths who have joined the jihadists because they have no money, no work and no prospects, but there are also radicalised elements who are involved in these movements which they see as the expression of their Islamic faith.” Meanwhile, there is growing fear within the Christian community. “It is since 2015 that we have been subjected to this spate of violence” said Bishop Dabiré, in whose own diocese a priest was abducted on 17 March this year, Father Joël Yougbaré. “To this day we still have no news of him”, the bishop adds. “The degree of insecurity is growing constantly and it has even forced us to reduce our pastoral activities.” He explained that in fact there are some areas where it is now impossible to go and that he has been forced to close down two parishes in order to protect his priests religious and faithful.

What hurts, in the midst of so much suffering, is also the lack of any action to defend the Christian communities, and above all the aid being channeled from abroad to the jihadists. “The weapons they are using were not made here in Africa. They have rifles, machine guns and so much ammunition, more than the Burkina Faso army has at its disposal. When they come to the villages they shoot for hours. Who is supplying them with these resources? If they were not getting this support from outside, they would have to stop. That’s why I’m appealing to the international authorities. Whoever has the power to do so, may they put a stop to all this violence!”

Bishop on the growing violence against Christians in West Africa

The third Plenary Assembly of the bishops of West Africa took place in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, from 13 to 20 May. The assembly was overshadowed by severe terrorist attacks that have shaken the country.

Bishop Martin Happe, a native of Germany who is head of the diocese of Nouakchott in Mauritania, took part in the assembly of bishops at Burkina Faso. Volker Niggewöhner, a journalist of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, discussed the dramatic events with the missionary to Africa.

ACN: Bishop Happe, several assassinations have been carried out within a short period of time. How did the attendees of the assembly of bishops react to this?

BISHOP MARTIN HAPPE: In spite of these dramatic events, more than one hundred bishops from several West African countries came to the assembly at Burkina Faso. It was a sign of encouragement for the Church and the entire country. Burkina Faso is not the only place suffering violence; it can be found throughout the region. The violence is being incited by Islamist fundamentalists, who are trying to stir up conflict between the ethnic groups as well as between Catholics and Muslims. No one knows for sure who is behind it. However, it must also be said: the victims of this wave of violence are mostly Muslims.

What makes the Christians a target for terrorists?

Before I came to Mauritania, I worked in Mali for 22 years, mostly in the northern part of the country. This was when the attacks started happening there. The fundamentalists specifically targeted the small Christian minority. However, it should also be pointed out that up to 160 000 Muslim refugees from Mali sought refuge in Mauritania. These Muslims are also considered “heretics” by fundamentalists because they are not followers of Wahhabism and fundamentalist Islam. Of course, for the terrorists, non-Muslims are far worse. That is why they primarily target Christians.

“We will not let them divide us”.

“We will not let them divide us”.

Is religious fanaticism the only reason for persecution or are there also others?

Religious fanaticism is often just an excuse. Everything revolves around natural resources, around political power. It is a very complex issue.

How do the Christians react to the terrorism?

Over the last few days, both the West African bishops and the government in Burkina Faso have clearly stated: we will not let them divide us. They will not be able to separate us into different religious and ethnic groups. Because that is exactly what the terrorists want to see happen.

Do you see ways, for example to ensure that the more moderate proponents of Islam are given opportunities to state their views?

That is a decisive point. In the concluding statement issued by the assembly, we bishops wrote that religious leaders have to work together towards mutual goals. We have to unite and take a clear stand: anyone who kills in the name of God cannot proclaim themselves a messenger from God. We have to promote this solidarity, which already exists. It is the only instrument we have to take action against violence.

West Africa is a highly diverse region in terms of the prevailing circumstances. There are countries with a Christian majority population such as Ghana. And there are countries in which the Christians represent a small minority, as is the case in Mauritania. What is the situation there?

In Mauritania, the government and people set great store by the fact that they are an Islamic and not an Islamist republic. Islamism is strictly monitored. Attacks have been planned, but these were discovered and thwarted before they could be carried out. As a Catholic bishop, I travel all over the country and am not afraid. However, I do not know how long this will last.

For almost 25 years the ACN Foundation supports the Church of Mauritania with different projects.

For almost 25 years the ACN Foundation supports the Church of Mauritania with different projects.

What can we Christians in Europe do?

Show solidarity, that is important. The Church in Mauritania, for example, is miniscule with only about 4000 Catholics. It is very important that we receive visits, that people show interest, keep themselves informed and pray for us.

For almost 25 years the ACN Foundation supports the Church of Mauritania with different projects. At the moment, in addition to the support for the maintenance of priests and religious, ACN co-finances the repair work of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Nouakchott, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

At least 15 people have died in Burkina Faso in recent weeks in different attacks on Christian churches in the West African country. A situation of anguish and despair that Sister Anne-Marie Kabore, religious of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Ouagadougou, tries to overcome in the best way: singing for peace. Burkina Faso, a model of tolerance until few years ago, faces now unprecedented violence. Anne-Marie Kabore has been a religious sister since 2007 and she is also a doctor in Pharmacy since 2016. Her third vocation is in music. All these put the sister at the service of evangelization and reconciliation within Burkina Faso.

Sister Anne-Marie Kabore, religious of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso).

Sister Anne-Marie Kabore, religious of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso).

Evangelization

 To work for the evangelization of the peoples – this is the charism of the congregation of Sister Anne-Marie, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, a pontifical congregation founded in 1924 by a bishop from the Savoie region of France and which today numbers 450 nuns around the world – in Benin, Mali, Algeria, Italy and, of course, France, particularly in Chambéry. Their vocation is to be available “for any work deemed useful by the local Church,” she explains during her visit to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). And so catechesis, the support of women who have become outcasts or accused of witchcraft, teaching in schools, health care, pastoral care through music… these are all part of the mission entrusted to the sisters.

Already a pharmacist, Sister Anne-Marie is currently pursuing a specialization in bio-pharmacology at the University of Ouagadougou, training aimed at improving the formulation of the various pharmaceutical products that the congregation provides for the population in Ouagadougou.

But Sister Anne-Marie has especially received the gift of composing and singing, ever since her childhood, she recalls in her conversation to ACN. The eldest of 5 children, born to artistic parents in a Christian family, she was attracted to the religious life at the age of 9. Today Sister Anne-Marie believes that music is a great instrument of evangelization. A gifted musician, she founded a band in 2011 and since then has composed and performed her own songs, both in the local language Moré and in French – be it reggae, zouk or slow. Her albums are available on YouTube and have had hundreds of thousands of views.

Comfort

“I have three albums on the record market,” she says: “Magnificat”, released in 2011, eight songs about mutual forgiveness and charity; ‘Shalom – Peace’ (“Shalom-la paix”), released in 2014, on interreligious tolerance, acceptance of other religions and living in harmony despite our differences; and ‘Always try’ (“Essaie toujours”), in 2017, in which she invites people to trust in God despite difficulties and failures.”

With the support of her congregation and of Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, Metropolitan Archbishop of Ouagadougou, Sister Anne-Marie travels to all 15 dioceses of the country, engaging in the evangelization of young people. A backing-group, made up of six nuns, and a group of instrumentalists – who are not necessarily Christians – accompany Sister Anne-Marie.

Reconciliation

“I speak to young people,” she says, “because they need to be guided, but my audience is diverse, I adapt my approach to my particular audience. For example, I go into the prisons and may perhaps meet a brother or sister who is undergoing a particular trial and needs to feel loved, and I invite him or her to a change of life.” In another song, entitled Ra le yab ye, Sister Anne-Marie endeavours to comfort those women who have been rejected by today’s Burkinabé society, especially childless women, and women accused of witchcraft…

Among the difficulties facing Burkina’s society today, Sister Anne-Marie does not hesitate to address the terrorist attacks that are being perpetrated within the country and the areas that are suffering from the insecurity. “The Church is called to accompany, to work for the reconciliation of the sons of the nation,” she says.  “Last February, I composed a song for reconciliation and peace in Burkina Faso. The difficult situation that the country is going through has inspired me. In this single, I cry out to God, that he may grant us peace, stability and reconciliation of hearts. I also sing of the need to remain united. [It is] a single [the video of which] was shot in late April and will be available soon. It’s a single to listen to, to meditate on, and one that that speaks of the necessity of training priests and nuns, so that they can be the leaders of a population capable of creating a climate of peace – and so ensure that Burkina Faso can reconnect with its history of peace and tolerance.”

The International Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) has been providing constant support to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Burkina Faso for years, mainly through aid for pastoral transport and construction. Sister Anne-Marie Kabore came recently to the international headquarters of ACN to present a new project relating to her singing apostolate and music ministry – specifically to ask financial support to acquire a sound system and related equipment.

Priests advised not to wear clerical dress while travelling

Following the most recent killing of four members of the Catholic faithful on Monday 13 May in the parish of Notre-Dame du Lac in Singa, in the province of Bam, security measures have been announced in a communiqué by Bishop Justin Kientega of the diocese of Ouahigouya in the northeast of Burkina Faso.

Speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), the Bishop explained what had happened: “As they were setting out in procession to honour the Blessed Virgin, they were attacked, and four people were abducted. People thought they were going to be held captive, but instead they executed them without mercy”, he revealed.

The Bishop called on Christians to renew their prayers for peace in Burkina Faso, but at the same time he outlined precautionary measures and called for greater vigilance for the safety of the priests, religious and all the Catholic faithful of the diocese, which lies on the border with Mali in the north of the country.

In his statement he counselled his priests and religious to avoid wearing overtly religious clothing such as the soutane or religious habits that would distinguish them as such. And he recommended intensifying security measures, especially when travelling, such as not using obviously marked vehicles, travelling only at times when there is plenty of traffic, and never at night, and avoiding travelling always along the same route. He also advised them not to publicise their meetings too far in advance.

A sunday service in the parish of Kongoussi.

A sunday service in the parish of Kongoussi.

All these measures, which reflect the tense situation in the country following the escalation of violence against Christians, are bound to seriously affect the pastoral work of the Church, given that the Catholic communities are generally widely dispersed, above all in the north, where the majority of the population are either Muslims or animists.

As has already happened in other African countries such as Cameroon and Nigeria, and in Asia, notably in Pakistan and Sri Lanka – all of which have also been affected by the attacks of Islamic fundamentalist groups – Bishop Kientenga has called on his priests to step up their vigilance around their churches and chapels, with the help of volunteer vigilantes who can respond rapidly and warn the faithful in the event of danger. He also advised them to limit the length of their religious celebrations.

Finally, the Bishop underlined his concern for providing adequate protection for his catechists, who very often live and work in isolated areas and are therefore exposed to even greater risk.

Bishop Kientenga concluded his message with a prayer for peace: “May the Lord, the Prince of Peace and Victor over the powers of evil, grant peace to our country. May He Himself be our Strength and support, our Hope during these times of trial. May He grant eternal rest to our martyrs, and may the blood which they have shed be a source of peace and spiritual fruitfulness.”

Staff at the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) were deeply shocked and saddened to hear the news of the murder of Father Simeon Yampa, parish priest of the parish of Dablo, in central northern Burkina Faso. His church was attacked on Sunday 12 May, just after the celebration of Holy Mass had begun, by a group of 20 or so armed men, who murdered the priest and five of his faithful.

According to local sources with whom ACN was able to speak, the attackers burst into the church, shooting, just as the congregation was singing the Gloria. Five members of the congregation were shot and killed. The chapel is very small, but, including those standing outside, there were around a hundred worshippers at the time. Three bullets struck the Tabernacle. Father Simeon tried to rescue the altar servers, by ushering them into the sacristy, but the terrorists went through the church and discovered him, shooting him dead on the spot.

“There was a general panic, and people were terrified. The killers forced the faithful to remove the crucifixes and religious items they were wearing and put them down in front of the altar. They threatened the entire congregation before leaving, warning them that they would return and that if the women were not all covered in veils, they would kill them all. Then they set fire to the sacristy, the crucifixes and all the liturgical objects, and also to a vehicle standing outside the church. Then they went to the dispensary and burned the vehicle there also, so that nobody could escape”, explains Rafael D’Aqui, who heads ACN’s Africa desk for the area including Burkina Faso.

The parish house in Dablo, which stands next to the chapel and forms part of the parish, which is dedicated to Blessed Isidore Bakanja and includes 18 other villages, was built just six years ago with help from ACN.

Rafael D’Aqui, profoundly moved by the events, went on to explain that “ACN helped this community in 2013 because, although they had had a chapel for many years, they wanted to establish a proper parish there where there would be a stable presence of the Church. In the financial report sent to ACN after completion of the presbytery, the priest had described how this was a historic moment, filled with emotion, for the entire Christian community. They were so happy at the prospect of having a permanent priestly presence, supporting the eight catechists who were already there. It was a dream come true for them, and their joy was plain to see on all their faces”, he recalls.

Fr. Simeon Yampa (parish priest of Dablo since Sept. 2018). He was murdered in the sacristy of the parish church when 20 men arrived for a terroristic attack in the parish church of Dablo on the 12th May 2019 (Good Shepherd Sunday). He died trying to save the children serving the altar.

Fr. Simeon Yampa (parish priest of Dablo since Sept. 2018). He was murdered in the sacristy of the parish church when 20 men arrived for a terroristic attack in the parish church of Dablo on the 12th May 2019 (Good Shepherd Sunday). He died trying to save the children serving the altar.

Dablo lies in a very poor and arid region, where the lack of rain makes it difficult for people to grow sufficient food, yet when the parish was founded there was no fear of any danger. In fact Burkina Faso was regarded as an example of interreligious peace and harmony. As Rafael D’Aqui explains, the report from the parish struck a profoundly optimistic note: “With your help the team of priests in charge of the parish will be able to quietly develop a range of pastoral activities for the local people.” And the truth is that until now the religious minorities, including the Christians (23.9% of the population) and animists (21.3%) have not suffered any discrimination in this majority Muslim country, where there has traditionally been a relationship of mutual understanding between the different faith communities – a fact also underlined by the most recent report on World Religious Freedom published by the foundation ACN.

Although it is true that from a political perspective Burkina Faso has for some years been the target of jihadist attacks, fuelled by its northern neighbours Mali and Niger, these attacks were not hitherto directed at other religions. However, the situation has changed abruptly in recent months, and now, after a series of incidents – attacks, abductions threats and intimidation – everything appears to point to the fact that Christians have now become one of the targets of the jihadists, with the intention of destabilising the country.

Just two weeks or so ago, on 28 April, Pierre Ouedraogo, Protestant pastor was murdered together with two of his children and three other worshippers, in an attack on his church in Silgadji, around 60 km from Djibo, likewise in the north of the country.

This means that three members of the Christian clergy have been assassinated in 2019. In addition to Father Simeon Yampa, the Catholic priest murdered in Dablo, and the Protestant pastor Pierre Ouedraogo killed in Silgadji, another priest was murdered on 15 February, Salesian missionary Father César Fernández, of Spanish origin, who was shot dead during an attack on a customs post in the south of the country close to the frontier with Togo. Also missing, whereabouts unknown, is Father Joel Yougbare, a Catholic priest abducted on 17 March on the border with Mali.

Burkina Faso, Dablo (Diocese Kaya) Funeral of Fr Simeon Yampa and 5 faith after the terroristic attack in the parish church of Dablo on 12 May 2019 (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Burkina Faso, Dablo (Diocese Kaya) – Funeral of Fr Simeon Yampa and 5 faith after the terroristic attack in the parish church of Dablo on 12 May 2019 (Good Shepherd Sunday).

ACN has likewise reported a number of threats against Catholic communities in various parts of the country, which have forced Sunday Masses to be cancelled and even obliged communities of religious sisters to vacate their convents. “The jihadist groups are going through the villages threatening local inhabitants and demanding they convert to Islam, shutting down Christian communities and places of worship, and also schools and health centres”, Rafael D’Aqui explains.

“The Church in Burkina Faso is suffering greatly from the situation, but impresses me with its fortitude. The international community needs to respond, rather than to leave Burkina Faso to become a fiefdom of the Islamist fundamentalists. Let us pray that peace may return to this country”, he continues.

“Father Simeon only arrived in this parish in September last year, and the fact that he died on Good Shepherd Sunday is a moving sign for us. It is important to emphasise that his funeral on Monday 13 May was attended not only by two government ministers and by Church representatives (three bishops and the secretary of the Nunciature) but also by many animists and Muslims who are completely opposed to such barbaric acts”, D’Aqui concludes.

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ABOUT US

Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.