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.
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.
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.