The speed at which violent extremism has erupted in the Sahel belt has shocked many Christians who have witnessed their homes being destroyed and their livelihoods lost at the hands of Islamic extremists.
Violent extremism is affecting the whole of the Sahel belt, the belt of land below the Sahara desert, where the ‘north’ meets the ‘south’. The area is the fault line between the two tectonic plates of African religion: Islamic Africa to the north, and predominantly Christian Africa to the south.
There are many causes for the violence and instability including the toxic mix of poverty, unemployment, corruption and lack of governance. For Christians, increasing Islamic extremism is the factor wreaking the most havoc.
The region is becoming a major new hotspot for Islamic militant groups that are partially home-grown and also part of international terror franchises like IS and Al-Qaeda.
Extreme forms of Islam are taking root in the region. Salafi and Wahhabi Islam are gaining prominence with the support of missionaries and NGOs operating in the region who are funded by oil rich Gulf States like Saudi Arabia.
The poverty, lack of employment opportunities and corruption makes many susceptible to the message of radical Islam, which promises a new political order free from corruption. This is especially true when the message is accompanied by the provision of goods and services which the state has failed to provide.
Almost 30 violent Islamist groups are known to be active in the region: most perpetrate violence in more than one country; Boko Haram has spread out from north Nigeria, across Lake Chad and into other countries.
As militants from groups like Islamic State have been driven out of the Middle East they have found refuge in the increasingly failing states along the Sahel. Their radical ideology has inspired, or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province, a deadly group which broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and which targets and enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy.
Many militant Islamic groups view the vast and sparsely populated expanse of the Sahel, where states have only nominal sovereignty, as a safe haven and have established bases there.
The rise of Islamic militancy in the Sahel should also been seen as part of a global trend. The spread of ideas and practices of Islamic militant groups has been made easier by the internet and increasing use of smart phones in Africa.
VIOLENCE ACROSS THE SAHEL
Islamic militant groups in the region are very hostile to Christianity. This is often expressed through violent acts. These groups are also known to target Muslims who follow more liberal version of Islam.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, reported fatalities from attacks targeting civilians have risen by 300% in Mali, 500% in Niger, and 7,000% in Burkina Faso relative to the same period last year.
On 7 June Boko Haram kidnapped a Christian woman in the village of Kintchendi, in the Diffa region of Niger. She was released the following Monday with a letter to all the Christians living in that area to leave the town within three days or be killed. Open Doors field sources say the Christian Association of Niger has urged all Christians in that area and other rural areas of Diffa to leave and go to Niamey, the capital.
In Mali, violent incidents linked to militant Islamic groups have tripled during the past 12 months, according to a report by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.
On 16 June unidentified gunmen on motorbikes, suspected to be Fulani militants, attacked the villages of Yoro and Gangafani killing at least 41 people. Victims' bodies were mutilated and burned. The week beforehand gunmen raided a village in central Mali, Sobane Da. Witnesses reported that over one hundred Christians were killed but the official figures quote 35.
This violence coincides with an ongoing jihadist campaign Mali is struggling to contain, despite military support from France and the UN.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Further south in the north-eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a group called the Islamic Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) have been attacking the mostly Christian population. Open Doors sources have reported over 20 attacks, resulting in around 90 deaths. At least 131 people have been kidnapped, and 12,000 people displaced. At least six churches have been burned down and two church-run clinics and health centres have been destroyed. The ADF has boasted of establishing a caliphate.
Open Doors' team leader for the work in the DRC, Pierre* said, “We need to pray more than before because the situation is drastically declining. Pray for God to relieve the suffering of the people in this part of the country.”
Open Doors has emergency relief ready to go, but the work has been frustrated by a local outbreak of Ebola, which is made even harder to control due to the insecurity.
In Burkina Faso, the scale and speed of the violence has taken people by surprise. A country previously known for peaceful coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups has descended into chaos with the increased activity of extremist groups. In the northern and eastern parts of Burkina Faso these groups are loudly proclaiming their allegiance to so-called Islamic State and raising new fantasies of a caliphate.
Churches and Christians have been targeted. In the space of four months eight attacks have claimed the lives of 27 Christians. An unknown number of pastors and their families have been kidnapped and remain in captivity.
More than 5,000 pastors and church members have been forced into Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps or are taking refuge with family and friends in the south or central regions. Over 200 churches have been closed in northern parts of the country to avoid further attacks.
On the evening of Thursday 27 June, unidentified armed individuals entered the village of Bani about 10 kilometres from Bourzanga in northern Burkina Faso and killed four people, all Catholics.
According to eyewitnesses, the attackers told everyone to lie down before asking for names, those with Christians names or Christian insignia (like crosses) were taken aside and executed. Before leaving, the attackers set fire to the shop that belonged to one of the Christians.
The next day, Friday 28 June attackers went to the village of Pougrenoma, also in the Bourzanga region and threatened the inhabitants. They did not kill anyone but told residents they do not want to see the Defence and Security Forces (SDF) or other government officials when they return. Christians were told to convert or risk execution.
PRECARIOUS SITUATION FOR CHRISTIANS
Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland said: “The situation for Christians in the Sahel is precarious; this is a critical time for the future of Christianity in the region. If the militant groups have their way, Christians and Muslims who do not subscribe to their ideology will be killed and driven out of the entire region.”
Open Doors works through Churches and partner organisations to support persecuted Christians in in many countries in West Africa, including Mali, Ivory Coast, Niger, Togo and Nigeria. In the east of the Sahel, Open Doors works through churches in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
THE WORLD WATCH LIST
From northern Senegal in the west, the Sahel belt runs across the continent, through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, the extreme north of Nigeria, parts of Cameroon and Central African Republic, central Chad, central and southern Sudan, the extreme north of South Sudan, Eritrea, and the extreme north of Ethiopia.
Sudan is number 6 on the Open Doors World Watch List, Eritrea is number 7, Nigeria is number 12, Central African Republic is number 21, Mali is number 24, Mauritania is number 25 and Ethiopia is number 28.
Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and South Sudan all have high levels of persecution and sit just outside the World Watch List top 50 at number 56, 58, 60, 61, and 64 respectively.
In all of these countries violence is increasing and Christianity is under attack.
*Name changed for security