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On the first day of December, about 10 gunmen stormed the SIM Evangelical Church of Hantoukoura in eastern Burkina Faso during Sunday service. They sprayed gunfire inside the church and killed 14 people, including the pastor.
In a statement, the Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions (FEME) condemned the latest of the recurring attacks and called on Christian organizations to engage in the fight for peace.
“As Christmas approaches, our hearts beat to welcome the Prince of Peace, who came to make peace first between man and God, then between men themselves,” said the statement signed by the FEME president, Pastor Henri Ye.
The massacre is similar to several others that have hit the once calm West African nation with more frequency in the months and weeks leading up to Christmas. More than 500 people have died since late 2018 and nearly 500,000 other people have been displaced. Christians and other locals have fled their homes, schools, and churches. The persistent violence is raising fear of more casualties, the imposition of Islamic law across the country, and a possible spillover into other countries in the Sahel region. But Christians continue to worship and pray.
Burkina Faso has a history of tolerance and intermarriage between religious groups. But extremist groups from Mali and Niger have broken through the porous borders in the north and east to extend their influence. Groups like the Macina Liberation Front, the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, the Islamic State, and others are thriving.
In January 2016, extremists with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stormed the Splendid Hotel, popular with foreigners in the capital, Ouagadougou. They held 126 people hostage for seven hours and targeted a nearby hotel and café. At least 30 people died, including one American.
The violence marked the beginning of a deadly insurgency across the country and more frequent attacks. On April 28, 2019, at least six people died in an attack on a Protestant church in the northeastern province of Soum. In May, gunmen killed six people, including a priest, during a Sunday Mass celebration. Attackers the same month killed at least four Catholics during a religious procession. On Oct. 11, insurgents killed 16 people in a mosque in the northern village of Salmossi.
An Open Doors team that visited several communities in the northern region reported in June that jihadists sent warnings to Christians there: “At first, they were against the mode of worship in the churches where women and men gathered in the same church,” the report said. “Then, in no time, the believers were warned not to hold any Christian worship services.”
Illia Djadi, a senior analyst with Open Doors, told me the attacks signal an Islamization agenda, where insurgents target state symbols like security forces, schools, and places of worship to impose Islam across all facets of society.
In September, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack in the northern Soum province that killed 24 Burkinabe soldiers. Two months later, at least 37 people died when militants targeted a convoy carrying employees of a Canadian mining company.
The violence has shut down more than 2,000 schools that educate some 330,000 children. Djadi said the extremists have forced schools in the French-speaking country to teach in Arabic and incorporate Islamic studies. In the north, the unrest has also closed more than 200 churches.
Christians in the eastern region of the country reported how militants seized control of villages there. One resident told Open Doors the insurgents are implementing Sharia law: “Everyone goes to the mosque at 6 p.m., and women are forced to cover their heads. There’s no talk of cigarettes, alcohol or music, no celebrations. … If you smoke, at first they just tell you not to. The third time, they kill you.”
Djadi said two additional attacks in early December may signal a spillover into neighboring countries. One occurred in the south near the border with Ghana. In a separate attack close to the border with Ivory Coast, armed men attacked the immigration office, injured travelers, and stole several motorcycles.
Both countries have intensified border patrol efforts this year in response. In Ghana, churches like Our Lady Queen of Africa in the bordering Upper East region implemented security training for some church members, fearing attacks on churches. The Assessment Capacities Project, a Norwegian nonprofit organization providing international humanitarian analysis, said it expects the conflict to worsen over the next six months.
“Burkina Faso is in a central position,” Djadi said. “If eventually the militants are able to overrun Burkina Faso, all the countries in the south can be affected.”
Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, the regional director with the South Africa–based Institute for Security Studies, co-authored a report on the insecurity released this month in Burkina Faso. She explained the extremists thrive on exploiting already-existing points of conflict—like cattle rustling, poaching, and illegal gold mining—to grow their influence.
“The research shows that violent extremists implant, recruit, and expand their efforts in areas where the state is either absent or contested,” she said.
Théroux-Bénoni also said the growing footprint of attacks across the region is a strategy extremist groups use to build their networks. Her group has tracked fuel trafficking among extremist groups from Nigeria through Benin or Togo and into Burkina Faso. They have also traced stolen bikes from the Nigeria-Niger border to eastern Burkina Faso.
“The networks allow these groups to operate much farther than the areas they attack,” she said.
Burkina Faso belongs to G5 Sahel, a joint force combating regional terrorism that includes Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania. France also has some 4,500 troops operating in the region. Théroux-Bénoni said military solutions are sometimes necessary, but the long-lasting answers can only come when the state provides basic services and development in affected regions.
U.S.-based missions agency Sheltering Wings, which has operated in the country for two decades, has directly felt the unrest. In the 2016 Splendid Hotel attack, the only American casualty was Mike Riddering, a missionary affiliated with the group.
“It had a very big impact on our organization,” said Philip Matheny, the group’s mission director. “It’s another reason why we take security very seriously these days.”
The nonprofit is one of several organizations now training in mitigating personal threats, surveillance, hostage survival, and evasive and defensive driving. The violence has not directly affected the communities where they work, but many locals have housed displaced people.
Matheny said despite the violence, some churches are growing: “What I’ve heard through some of the church leaders we work with and around one of our mission sites is that they’re seeing a lot more people coming to churches and hoping to find truth and to find the love of Jesus because of the unrest and the insecurity.”
For some Christians in Burkina Faso, this Christmas comes with fear. One Christian told me he expects government-imposed curfews in anticipation of more attacks. But many Christians continue to mobilize—in prayer.
“This is the first important thing we have to do, and then mobilize resources to help displaced people,” he said. “It will allow us in these difficult circumstances to bear witness to our faith.”