Burkina Faso: The Church under attack

For some time, the Catholic and Protestant communities have been a target for Islamic groups attempting to destabilise the country. They are also trying to weaken its inter-ethnic and interreligious ties.

It was an ordinary Sunday morning in Tanghin, in the northern outskirts of Ouagadougou. The sun, already high in the sky, shone down on a large crowd of people gathered round the gates of the church of Saint William, the largest in all of Burkina Faso. Many had brought their own chairs or small stools with them as there is never enough to seat everybody in the church.

The Catholic community of this vast urban conglomeration at the doors of the capital city counts more than fifteen thousand faithful. Construction and extension work has been going on for years: “The parish only started in 2001, so we are still young”, forty year-old Father Nestor Nikiema comments, smiling, as he watches the choir, altar servers and musicians enter the church. While waiting for Mass to start, they test the microphones and tune their instruments: a keyboard, two guitars, a base guitar, drums and a traditional djembe drum. Strident, whistling sounds from the loudspeakers can be heard all over the compound.

From a distance, the building towers above the single-storied houses scattered around the area. A tall campanile stands in the centre of the facade of the cruciform church. There are broad cloisters to protect those who cannot find room in the church from the scorching sun. Women in their coloured veils pray with their Rosary beads as barefoot children scamper around and men dressed in their Sunday best exchange greetings.

The inside of the church, rather than a place of worship, looks like a large industrial shed. Some images of Our Lady scarcely relieve the monotonous grey of the walls and cement pillars; small fans blow hot air down on the people as they go to their places. The rows of seats and stools are soon filled as is the rest of the available space in the church. The church overflows to the outside where people take their places in the shadow of the walls or under the small trees of the compound. When Father Nestor reaches the steps of the altar, a broad pedestal in cement with some as yet unconnected electrical sockets close to the floor, the noise suddenly ceases, all is quiet and all stand to begin the Mass.

The Sunday Mass lasts a couple of hours and is celebrated in French so that all the national ethnic groups can understand (there are 65 languages spoken in the country).

In recent months, due to increasing violence by various neo-jihadi groups, many people have taken refuge in the cities.

According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs, since 2015, the conflict has caused more than 400 deaths, 170,000 homeless and 1.2 million displaced people in urgent need of humanitarian help. “Every Saturday, we pray in this church with our Muslim and animist brothers for the restoration of peace to our country, Father Nestor tells us, we never saw anything like this before.

These terrorists come from outside and they are doing all they can to destroy the social cohesion and peaceful coexistence that has always flourished here”. In their Jihadi project of national and regional destabilisation, the groups active in the north and the east of Burkina recently altered their objective, moving from mosques and Imamas whom they consider to be deviant, from soldiers and state administrators to community and religious, especially those who are Christian and Catholics in particular.

At a deeper level, besides threatening local leaders, the ‘bearded ones’ (as the Moslem fanatics are called) are now aiming to undo inter-ethnic and interreligious ties which have always been the basis of coexistence between the different peoples of the country. “Here, marriages between people of different denominations are very frequent, showing the high level of brotherhood that binds us to followers of other faiths”, Father Nestor concludes.

In a recent statement the catholic bishops of Burkina Faso ask people “to remain united despite the resurgence of terrorist attacks; to cultivate the cohesion among the different components of our peoples to avoid falling into the traps of terrorists”.

The Bishops in particular ask Christians to intensify measures of prudence and vigilance at individual and community level in a climate of faith and hope and to remain disciples and witnesses of the One who obtained his victory not with violence, but with love; in other words, to conquer evil with good”. (Andrea De Georgio)