An outdoor church outside a home western Burkina Faso.(Photo: CIF Action via Flickr; CC 2.0)
An outdoor church outside a home in western Burkina Faso. It is not connected to the 28 April violence. (Photo: CIF Action via Flickr; CC 2.0)

Gunmen who attacked a Protestant church in Burkina Faso on 28 April asked the pastor and five others to convert to Islam before they killed them, World Watch Monitor has learned.

Last Sunday’s violence in the West African country appears to have been the first attack, specifically on a church building, in which people have been killed by Islamist extremists. In February, a Spanish Catholic priest was killed by armed men, believed to be Islamist militants, in the south-east region of Nohao, as he was returning from Togo.

Burkina Faso is long known for its peaceful co-existence among religious communities, unlike neighbouring Mali. But over the past two years, attacks by Islamist militants, military operations, and waves of inter-communal violence have left hundreds dead and 135,000 displaced, triggering an “unprecedented” humanitarian crisis that has caught many by surprise, says New Humanitarian News.

It reports that “home-grown militant groups, as well as extremists linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State group, have been in the country’s arid north (bordering Mali) since 2016, but have expanded to new fronts in the east and south-west, threatening the stability of neighbouring countries – Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Ivory Coast among them”.

On 28 April, in Sirgadji village in the north-eastern province of Soum, after the Assemblies of God church had ended its service, Pastor Pierre Ouédraogo, 80, and other members were chatting in the church yard. Around 1pm a dozen armed men arrived on motorbikes to storm the place, a local leader, who wanted to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor:

 Pastor Pierre Ouédraogo (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Pastor Pierre Ouédraogo (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

“The assailants asked the Christians to convert to Islam, but the pastor and the others refused. They ordered them to gather under a tree and took their Bibles and mobile phones. Then they called them, one after the other, behind the church building where they shot them dead”.

As well as the pastor, his son Wend-Kuni and brother-in-law, Zoéyandé Sawadogo (a deacon) were killed, plus Sayouba and Arouna Sawadogo, and a primary school teacher Elie Boena.

Adama Sawadogo, seriously injured, was taken to a nearby medical centre: his injuries are not life-threatening.

The assailants then set the church on fire – plus two motorbikes, then stole some sheep and a bag of rice from the pastor’s house before leaving.

The six were buried the same day, in a ceremony attended by both Christian and Muslim communities. (Pierre Ouédraogo is survived by his wife and other six children).

According to other local sources, the same attackers (some known to locals as “young men who’ve been radicalised”) came back into the village the next day “searching for Christians”. The sources say the armed groups can move with impunity because of the lack of law enforcement.

More than 100 Christians already have left for more secure towns further south, such as Kongoussi, over 75 kilometres away.

The International Crisis Group has pointed out the weakness of the country’s security apparatus since the departure of former President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014.

Almost a year ago, a pastor from another Assemblies of God church in the same province, and some of his relatives were kidnapped. Pierre Boéna was kidnapped by armed men on 3 June – with a son, daughter-in-law, two grandsons, and a member of his church and her twin daughters in the village of Bilhoré, 100km from the town of Djibo, near the Mali border. He was later released. It is unclear what happened to the others.

Back in Sirgadji, Pierre Ouédraogo told relatives of his concerns over the deterioration of security in the region, though there had been no incidents in his village. When they advised him to leave the area, he refused, saying he “would rather die for his faith than leave the community he has been serving for about 40 years”, the community leader told World Watch Monitor.

The Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions in Burkina Faso (FEME, for its French acronym) expressed its concern over the killings:

“It’s not only the church of Sirgadji that has been attacked; all the values of tolerance, forgiveness and love that have always led our country have been hurt”, said the federation’s president, Henri Yé, in a statement on 30 April. “The freedom of worship consecrated by our fundamental law [the Constitution] has been flouted.”

Pastor Henri Yé speaks at a press conference following Sunday's attack on a church. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
FEME President, pastor Henri Yé, speaks at a press conference in the capital Ouagadougou. (Photo: FEME)

Yé also called on all Burkina citizens, particularly Christians, not to fall into the attackers’ trap:

“In the face of blind hatred, let us ask God to give us the strength to spread love, which makes us the children of God. The unity of the Body of Christ and of the whole nation must be preserved at all costs.” He also called on “Christian organizations to be involved in the search for peace, through prayers and training of Burkinabe youth, in order to involve all sections of the population in the quest for social cohesion and better communal living.”

Islamists kill and capture Americans and Australians

Burkina Faso borders Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast, and is majority-Muslim (around 60%), but also has significant numbers of Christians (over 20%, most of whom are Catholics) and followers of indigenous beliefs (15%), according to the latest census (2006).

The country has been the scene of several Islamist attacks, including one in January 2016 in which 29 people were killed, including a US missionary and six Christians on a humanitarian trip.

On the very same day, an Australian doctor and his wife were kidnapped in Djibo, near the Mali border. Ken and Jocelyn Elliott, who are in their 80s, had worked in Burkina Faso since the 1970s. Jocelyn was released after a month, but her husband, who was declared a citizen of the West African nation by an official decree in November 2016, is still missing.

It is believed that he is being held outside Burkina Faso. In July 2017, he appeared in a video produced by his kidnappers, along with several other Western kidnap hostages. On it, he said: “This video is to ask various governments, in particular the Australian government and Burkina government, to do what they can to help negotiate my release.” Addressing his family, he added: “I just want to say, again, I love you all and I appreciate all your prayers and all your cares. I look forward to one day being reunited.”

Crisis part of a wave of violence sweeping Africa’s Sahel

New Humanitarian News reports that “The militants have launched near-daily attacks on Burkina Faso’s embattled security forces, which have responded by committing numerous abuses against civilians during counter-terrorism operations, including mass summary executions and arbitrary arrests, according to witness accounts and various rights organisations.

“As the state struggles to protect civilians, it says, a growing number of ‘self-defence’ militias have thrown their hats into the ring…. The Sahel – a belt of land below the Sahara desert – is experiencing an alarming increase in violent extremism – despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and Western and regional forces.

“In Burkina Faso, more than two thirds of those displaced have been uprooted since the start of the year, the equivalent of roughly 1,000 people every day, according to UN figures. If things continue, Daouda Djouma, an official at the UN’s emergency aid coordination body in Burkina Faso, OCHA, has said, the number of displaced people could reach more than 380,000 by December”.

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.

The 2019 Open Doors World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where life as a Christian is most difficult, provides evidence that, while the violent excesses of Islamic State and other Islamic militants have mostly disappeared from headlines from the Middle East, their loss of territory there means that fighters have dispersed to a larger number of countries not only in the region, but, increasingly, into sub-Saharan Africa. 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 also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy.

Out of the countries which the List says have ‘high’ levels of persecution of Christians, but which fall outside the top 50 countries, 18 out of the 23 are in sub-Saharan Africa: Comoros (no. 51), Djibouti (no. 53), the Democratic Republic of the Congo DRC (no. 54), Cameroon (no. 56), Tanzania (no. 57), Niger (no.58), Chad (no. 60), Burkina Faso (no. 61), Uganda (no. 62), Guinea (no. 63), S. Sudan (no. 64) Mozambique (no. 65), the Gambia (no. 66), Ivory Coast (no. 67), Burundi (no. 68), Angola (no. 69), Togo (no. 70) and Rwanda (no. 73).

Sub-Saharan Africa poses one of the world’s most potent security challenges, as poverty and radical Islam increasingly overwhelm weak governance. Instability, corruption, poverty, unemployment, and lack of governance feed into Christian persecution because states are either ineffective, or sometimes actively collude in it due to ethnic, tribal or political affiliations. The effect of the ensuing accumulation of structural vulnerabilities is also borne out in distinct patterns of persecution for men and women of the region.

The chaos of Libya’s collapse, leading to weapons pouring into the region, combines with the lucrative trade – for criminal gangs – of human trafficking of sub-Saharan migrants, many of whom are Christians. Increasingly sophisticated organized crime and drugs cartels stretch across sub-Saharan Africa. Young men especially seek a better life by leaving countries where they may be better educated than ever before, but lack jobs and economic and social advancement in the face of corrupt political and social elites.

Almost 30 violent Islamist groups are known to be active in the region: most perpetrate violence in more than one country. Some of them continue to hold expatriate Christian aid workers as hostages such as in Mali, Burkina Faso and other countries. Nigeria’s Boko Haram, instigating attacks in four countries, is an example of how violence is fluid across the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin.