Catholics in Mali have suffered a fresh wave of attacks at the hands of gunmen believed to be jihadists, amid a “dramatic” deterioration in security in the centre of the country.

Five years after Islamists seized control of the city of Timbuktu (pictured) and surrounding areas, Catholics in the centre of the country are being targeted. Photo: UN

Several churches were attacked last month, according to the news agency AFP. In Dobara, 500 miles (800km) north of the capital, Bamako, armed men forced open the church door, removed the crucifix, a statue of Mary and altar cloths, and burned them all in the front of the church.

Other attacks took place in front of worshippers. In Bodwal, also in central Mali, Catholics were chased out of the church by gunmen, who reportedly told them: “We will kill you if we see you still praying in the church.”

Rev. Edmond Dembélé, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Mali, confirmed the reports and warned that attacks against Catholics had been taking place for several months. He added: “Security has deteriorated dramatically in recent months in central Mali, where Islamic armed groups are rampant.”

Mali’s bishops voiced concern that no security measures have yet been put in place to protect the churches that have been attacked.

Last month a Human Rights Watch report found that armed Islamist groups had carried out “summary executions of civilians and soldiers of the Malian army, the destruction of schools and the forced recruitment of child soldiers”. Meanwhile the report accused Malian soldiers of carrying out a raft of serious human rights abuses against people who supported armed Islamist groups.

Mali is the 32nd most difficult country in which to live as a Christian, according to the 2017 World Watch List of the charity Open Doors. In August the president of the Baptist Church network in northern Mali, Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim Yattara, accused the UN of “double standards” for funding the reconstruction of mausoleums destroyed during the Islamists’ 2012-13 seizure of territory in the north, but not the churches.

Open Doors notes that since 2012 the country has become “even less hospitable to Christians than it was before”, and that Islamists continue to pose a threat to Christians, especially in parts of the country that are not controlled by the state. A number of missionaries and aid workers, including a Colombian nun, are being held hostage there.

In 2012 the Vatican-linked news agency Fides reported that Christians and Muslims fled the north of the country, and that clergy working in the north were forced to leave their churches. It cited a missionary priest who said that the Islamists who controlled the north were in league with cocaine-smugglers.