A series of deadly militant attacks targeting Christians in the northeast part of Burkina Faso, a once peaceful West African country, has rocked the Christian community.
Earlier this month, the president of the Episcopal Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger, Bishop Laurent Dabiré, told Aid to the Church in Need that Christians are in danger of “elimination” from the country due to the ongoing attacks against their community by Islamic extremists.
His warning comes as Islamic extremist violence across the Sahel region of West Africa has been rising since 2016.
Dabiré detailed a June 27 attack that occurred in the northern Diocese of Ouahigouya, which, according to the papal charity, was the fifth attack against Christians in northeast Burkina Faso since the beginning of 2019.
The June 27 attack happened in the village of Bani during a time when the village’s residents were gathered together.
“The Islamists arrived and forced everybody to lie face down on the ground,” the bishop said. “Then they searched them. Four people were wearing crucifixes. So they killed them because they were Christians.”
Dabiré said that after murdering the Christians who were wearing crucifixes, the extremists told other villagers that they would also be killed if they did not convert to Islam.
According to Aid to the Church in Need, at least 20 Christians have been killed in the five attacks carried out this year targeting Christian communities. Other attacks have occurred in the Dioceses of Dori and Kaya.
In addition to attacks in Burkina Faso, the extremist groups have also carried out massacres in countries like Mali and Niger as over 4 million people have been forced to flee from their homes in recent years.
“At first, they were only active in the frontier region between Mali and Niger,” Dabiré said. “But slowly they have moved into the interior of the country, attacking the army, civil structures, and the people. Today their main target appears to be the Christians and I believe they are trying to trigger an interreligious conflict.”
In April, gunmen killed five Catholic worshipers and their priest while leaving a church service in Silgadji.
In May, four Catholics were killed while transporting a statue of the Virgin Mary during a Marian procession.
In Burkina Faso, Muslims comprise over 60 percent of the population. The Christian population makes up over 20 percent of the population, most of which are Catholics.
Earlier in June, about a dozen gunmen killed at least 19 people in the northern Burkina town of Airbinda.
Dabiré warned that youths from the region have also joined the extremist factions.
“They include youths who have joined the jihadists because they have no money, no work and no prospects, but there are also radicalized elements who are involved in these movements which they see as the expression of their Islamic faith,” he said.
According to the United Nations, as many as 70,000 people fled their homes in a span of two months earlier this year as a result of armed groups burning down schools and killing innocent civilians.
And over 100,000 people have been displaced in Burkina Faso, the U.N. adds, with more than half of them being displaced since the beginning of 2019.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Washington-based think tank, there were 137 violent events with 149 fatalities attributed to Islamic extremist attacks in 2018.
Through the midpoint of 2019, the organization reports that there were 191 episodes of violence and 324 fatalities. Those attacks have been primarily carried out by three different groups: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the Macina Liberation Front, and Ansaroul Islam.
“Ansaroul Islam has played an outsized role in the destabilization of northern Burkina Faso,” a July report from the think tank reads. “From 2016 to 2018, just over half of militant Islamist violent events in Burkina Faso were attributed to Ansaroul Islam. These attacks were concentrated in the northern province of Soum and clustered around the provincial capital, Djibo.”
The report states that Ansaroul Islam has carried out a higher percentage of attacks against civilians than any other militant group in the region. In addition to the 100,000 people who've fled their homes, the think-tank notes that the violence has forced 352 schools to close in the Soum province.
However, Ansaroul Islam was only associated with 16 violent attacks and seven deaths by mid-2019, suggesting that the group has played a diminished role in the escalation of violence this year.
“It is also speculated that a number of militants may have split from Ansaroul Islam, joining FLM or ISGS following [leader Ibrahim Malam Dicko] death [in May 2017],” think tank report reads. “Both militant Islamist groups are well known in the region and readily employ social media as well as communication tools.”
As The Washington Post notes, many of the victims of the escalation in extremist violence in Burkina Faso have been Muslims. But attacks targetting Christians represent a shift from indiscriminate killed to trying to divide communities.
Illia Djadi, senior analyst for sub-Saharan Africa at Open Doors International, told the newspaper that the militants appear to be using a “divide and conquer” strategy.
Chrysogone Zougmore, who leads the Burkinabe Movement for Human and Peoples' Rights, told The Washington Post that the extremist attacks targetting Christian communities are “planting seeds of a religious conflict.”
"They want to create hate,” Zougmore explained. “They want to create differences between us."