The grip of Islamic militants on northern and eastern parts of Burkina Faso is growing.
On Sunday 9 June at least 19 people died in another jihadist attack. “Several dozen armed men carried out an attack on the district of Arbinda, shooting several people dead,” said a local official who wished to remain anonymous.
According to the official, the attack took place when a group of assailants opened fire on locals on Sunday morning. Before the attack three vehicles had been stopped and burnt and a driver killed.
Burkina Faso had been known for peaceful coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups. But in 2014 a revolution ended the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaoré. The power vacuum was quickly filled by extremist groups, exploiting ethnic fault-lines and fanning ethnic strife.
An Open Doors worker said, “There are many factors contributing to the violence in Burkina Faso, including political, economic, tribal and religious reasons. Many Burkinabe youths have been radicalized by the teaching of Islamist preachers and leaders of extremist groups.”
The government has declared a state of emergency in seven of the country's administrative regions, but many say these government measures are accompanied by brutality. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces have killed three times as many people as armed Islamist groups in the northern Sahel region. This has given rise to ‘self-defence’ militias and has increased ethnic violence.
Church leaders told Open Doors that the church in Burkina Faso was not prepared for the present situation. They reported that no one expected the scale and speed of the deterioration in security.
Many pastors and their families have been kidnapped and remain in captivity. Over 200 churches have been closed in northern parts of the country to avoid further attacks and Sunday worship services are discouraged in most rural areas for safety reasons.
“This is the biggest shock of our lives as Christians. Never in our wildest imagination did we think this would happen and that today we would be left at the mercy of other believers in safer areas. We have left everything we laboured for. Our children have been pushed out of school. Some of our men have been killed without provocation,” Pastor Daniel Sawadogo told Open Doors.
Since the start of 2019, 90,000 people have been displaced. Health centres have been forced to shut or have cut back services, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without medical care. Over a thousand schools remain closed. One teacher told Open Doors, “The Jihadists are replacing state schools with Arabic schools. We received severe warning to leave. The government succeeded in relocating some pupils and teachers to safer areas.”
Churches all over the country are arranging collection of food items to support the affected believers but are unable to keep up with the need.
An Open Doors team member said, “The level of trauma among the displaced believers is extremely high, and they will live with it for a very long time if they are not helped. The situation needs urgent attention. The believers need practical help with things like food, clothing, shelter and medicine, and spiritual support like trauma care and prayer. They also need discipleship training and help in how to respond to this situation in a biblical way.”
Some churches are determined to remain: “During the revolution, the church was threatened by the state and experienced growth. So, the church will come out stronger than it is now,” said Pastor Phillipe Bamogo. “Pain may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. We are suffering today, but our hearts are strong in the Lord. He will come to our rescue in due course.”
Burkina Faso sits just outside the Open Doors World Watch List – the top 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. It is categorised as having high levels of persecution and is on Open Doors' list of Persecution Watch countries. Violence against Christians has risen dramatically in Burkina Faso this year. In the last 12 months, the increasing violence across Mali and Niger, as well as Burkina Faso, has led to a five-fold rise in the displacement of the local population.