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Suffering in the Sahel - Christians increasingly persecuted in sub-Saharan Africa

“This is the biggest shock of our lives as Christians. Never in our wildest imagination did we think this would happen.”

Up until recently Pastor Daniel Sawadogo was living peacefully in Dablo, Burkina Faso. But that peace has been shattered. On 12 May 2019, gunmen stormed a church service in Dablo, killing six Christians including the priest. They burned down the church, shops, health centre, and other buildings. Extremist Muslim groups have moved into the northern and eastern parts of the country. Pastor Daniel is just one of thousands who have been forced to flee.

“We have left everything we laboured for,” he laments. “Our children have been forced out of school. Some of our men have been killed without provocation.”

Burkina Faso is under attack.

One of the churches that has been closed in Burkina Faso

CHURCHES ATTACKED, CHRISTIANS KILLED

It’s the scale and speed which has taken people by surprise. A country previously known for peaceful coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups has descended into chaos with the incursion of extremist Muslim groups. In the northern and eastern parts of Burkina Faso they are loudly proclaiming their allegiance to so-called Islamic State and raising new fantasies of a caliphate.

The church has been targeted. In the space of four months, seven targeted attacks have claimed the lives of 23 Christians. An unknown number of pastors and their families have been kidnapped and remain in captivity. Since I began writing this article, I have heard about another attack - on 27 June, four Christians in the village of Bani were killed by an armed group who targeted those wearing crosses.

“The Jihadists started threatening the church by sending warnings to stop worship services in the communities of Arbinda, Dablo, Djibo, Kongoussi and others,” said an Open Doors team member who has been to visit displaced Christians. “At first, they said they were against women and men worshipping together in the same church. Then, in no time, the believers were warned not to hold any Christian worship services at all.”

More than 5,000 pastors and church members have been forced into camps for internally displaced people 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.

Open Doors teams have been into the country to meet with displaced Christians, encouraging them to remain strong and reassuring them that they are not alone.

Meanwhile the government’s response has only fuelled the violence, meeting the brutality of the extremists with an even greater brutality of their own. The result is widespread destruction and displacement. Hundreds of people have died but, according to UN figures, over 135,000 people have fled, two thirds of them since the start of 2019.

Some of the displaced Christians

A WIDER PROBLEM

The violent extremism is part of a much wider problem - one which is affecting the whole of the Sahel belt (the belt of land below the Sahara desert, where the ‘north’ meets the ‘south’). It’s also the fault line between the two tectonic plates of African religion: Islamic Africa to the north, and predominantly Christian Africa to the south. From northern Senegal in the west, it 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.

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.

And in all of these countries violence is increasing and Christianity is under attack.

DECREASING FARMLAND, INCREASING EXTREMISM

So what’s happening? Where has the violence and instability come from? There are many causes including the usual toxic mix of poverty, unemployment, corruption and lack of governance. But two issues are having a particular impact.

First there is climate change. The increasing desertification of the region has forced nomadic tribes, like the Muslim Fulani, to move south into Christian farmland, often using violence to drive the Christian communities out. This is not only happening daily in northern Nigeria, but also elsewhere: on 16 June a group of suspected Fulani militants attacked villages in Mali, killing at least 41 people. (You can watch a video about a trauma centre recently opened by Open Doors partners in Nigeria, supporting survivors of attacks by Fulani herdsmen.)

Second, Islamic extremism is on the move. 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 like a virus from north Nigeria, across Lake Chad and into other countries. 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 rural areas of Diffa to leave and go to the city of Diffa.

Charity paints her self-portrait as part a trauma-care workshop. She was held captive by Boko Haram for three years.

Meanwhile, as groups like Islamic State have been driven out of the Middle East, they have found refuge in the increasingly failing states along the the Sahel. Their radical ideology has inspired, or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province, a deadly group that broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and that also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy.

In Mali, violent incidents linked to militant Islamic groups have tripled during the past 12 months, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

YET ANOTHER ‘CALIPHATE’

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 report over 20 attacks, resulting in around 90 deaths. More than 130 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 is another wannabe-ally of Islamic State and, like the rest, has boasted of establishing a caliphate.

Open Doors' team leader for the work in the DRC, Pierre*, says, “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.

SUPPORT VICTIMS IN WEST AFRICA

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.”

Please pray for Open Doors workers who are currently assessing the needs of victims in Burkina Faso. Open Doors is active in many countries in West Africa, including Mali, Ivory Coast, Niger and Togo, not to mention our long-established work in hot spots such as northern Nigeria. Open Doors works through local partners and churches to strengthen persecuted believers in Africa through Bible distribution, leadership and trauma care training, emergency relief, community development and advocacy support.

Support and encourage victims of persecution in Africa.

PRAY

  • Thank the Lord for providing the means for the visit to the believers in Burkina Faso. Pray for wisdom for Open Doors staff as they determine how to respond and protection as they travel to volatile regions
  • For comfort and grace for all who have lost loved ones and that the Lord would be close to the brokenhearted
  • For the witness of Christians in the area, that they would not give into revenge or retaliation in the fact of hostility
  • That governments would act wisely and effectively in bring law and order back to the region and combatting extremist ideologies.

*Name changed for security reasons