An armed attack that killed at least four Catholics during a religious procession in northern Burkina Faso last week raised concerns that the growing extremist violence could stoke a larger crisis.
Gunmen attacked a group carrying a statue of Mary on May 13 in the Diocese of Ouahigouya in the Nord region. “They let the minors go, executed four adults, and destroyed the statue,” Burkina Faso’s AIB news agency reported.
Paul Ouedraogo, president of the Episcopal Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger, confirmed the casualties during a meeting of bishops in the capital city of Ouagadougou.
A day earlier, at least 20 gunmen stormed a Catholic church in the town of Dablo, also in the Nord region, and killed six people, including the priest, the Rev. Simeon Yamba.
On April 28, at least six people died in a similar attack on a Protestant church in the northeastern province of Soum, where the gunmen asked the worshippers to convert to Islam. More than 100 Christians fled the region in search of safety farther south, World Watch Monitor reported.
Extremist attacks are on the rise in the West African nation with a history of tolerance, from 29 reported cases in 2017 to 137 in 2018, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Catholics and Protestants make up about 24 percent of Burkina Faso’s population, while Muslims account for 60 percent. The remaining population subscribes to indigenous beliefs.
No group has claimed responsibility for the latest surge in attacks, but the affected region borders conflict-ridden Mali.
William Assanvo, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies, said insecurity has extended to the eastern part of the country near the shared border with Niger, adding that terror groups like Burkina Faso–based Ansarul Islam and the Macina Liberation Front from central Mali remain active in the northern region.
“It’s something that can fuel intercommunal violence if we are not careful about knowing who’s behind the attacks,” he explained.
Burkina Faso belongs to a joint force combating regional terrorism along with Chad, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. The United Nations humanitarian agency this month warned of “unprecedented levels” of insecurity and armed attacks in the region.
Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Alpha Barry on Thursday told the UN Security Council the situation “is continuing to deteriorate” and called for international support.
In January, bishops in the country condemned the rising violence during their plenary meeting and urged authorities to “safeguard, while there is still time, the inalienable human values of fraternity, understanding, solidarity, forgiveness, peace, and mutual love in view of preserving social cohesion without which development is not possible.”
Assanvo said the government’s immediate response to the unrest involves heightened security. But the Rev. Leonard Tegwende Kinda, general secretary of the Association of Reformed Evangelical Churches in Burkina Faso, told Religion News Service the long-term solution to the insecurity should include efforts to strengthen the social fabric.
“It is definitely helpful to strengthen social justice projects and especially initiate a new generation of interreligious activities at ground level and involve local leaders,” Kinda said. “We need to advocate for good governance and community-handled development plans.”