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The heroic faith of Burkina Faso’s persecuted Catholics

Displaced Christians attend a church service in Kaya, Burkina Faso (CNS photo/Anne Mimault, Reuters)

Gunmen burst into a church in Burkina Faso on Sunday and sprayed worshippers with bullets. At least four people died in the attack on the Catholic chapel at Toulfé, a village in northern Burkina Faso. Reports described the assailants as “unidentified armed individuals”, but it is thought that they were jihadists responsible for a recent string of massacres.

The first reported incident took place on Sunday, May 12, when up to 30 gunmen burst into a Mass in the village of Dablo. They killed six people, including the celebrant, then burnt down the church. The following day, four Catholics were murdered during a Marian procession in the town of Ouahigouya. The killers set fire to a statue of the Virgin Mary before they left.

This sudden outbreak of homicidal violence against Catholics at prayer is truly disturbing. Yet it hasn’t captured the imagination of the mainstream media. This is because the killings are taking place in remote locations in West Africa. The death tolls are relatively small compared to, say, Sri Lanka, and the perpetrators lurk in the shadows.

But few observers doubt that the attackers belong to the Islamist groups that have wreaked havoc on Burkina Faso since 2015. Terrorists belonging to Ansar ul Islam, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have killed some 400 people and forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes.

This is depressing news for Burkina Faso, previously regarded as a model of peaceful co-existence between Islam and Christianity. Roughly 60 per cent of the 19 million population are Muslim. Nineteen per cent are Catholic, the fruits of French missionary work that began in 1896, when colonialists arrived in the region which became known as Upper Volta.

Burkina Faso’s misfortune is that it is a relatively small, landlocked country surrounded by volatile neighbours. It has therefore been swept up in a wider regional battle waged by Islamists. The militants’ preferred targets are Christians, especially Catholics, perhaps because the Church’s international network means that their attacks are noted worldwide. But they have also killed Muslim leaders whom they regard as insufficiently extreme.

France, the former colonial power, has deployed 4,500 troops in Burkina Faso and neighbouring Mali, Niger and Chad. Their mission, codenamed Operation Barkhane, is to help security forces drive out jihadists. But this is proving a difficult and dangerous task. This month two French commandos died while attempting to free hostages in northern Burkina Faso.

Observers argue that the violence is the result of broad demographic changes. They point out that both Muslims and Christians are seeing explosive population growth in Africa. According to Pew, both Islam and Christianity will have more than twice as many adherents on the continent by 2050 as they did in 2010. The number of Muslims will rise from 248 million to 670 million and Christians from 517 million to more than 1.1 billion. Analysts say this population growth is producing intense competition between Muslims and Christians for scarce resources, including land.

In the Central African Republic, for example, a Muslim-dominated rebel force ousted the Christian president in 2013. The country has been plagued by tit for tat attacks by Muslim and Christian militias ever since. Last week the mutilated body of Sister Inés Nieves Sancho, a 77-year-old missionary, was found in the village of Nola. (It is not known who killed her. One theory is that her assailants were organ traffickers, rather than Islamists.)

This inter-religious violence is, sadly, likely to bedevil Africa for the remainder of the 21st century and perhaps far beyond. Meanwhile, there is little that Catholics around the world can do to help the persecuted faithful in countries like Burkina Faso. We can – and should – pray for them. We also ought to give money to charities that support them. But unfortunately there is no way to ensure their safety, which is the responsibility of poorly equipped and thinly spread local security forces.

So we should expect further news of massacres at Masses in Burkina Faso in the months to come. This should put our own daily struggles to live as Catholics in perspective. The faithful in the north of the country know that going to church or taking part in a procession is potentially fatal. But that won’t stop them. Their heroic faith should not go unrecognised.