A leading Catholic charity is reporting that thousands of Christians in northern Burkina Faso fled their homes this month and are seeking shelter in another village after they were given the choice to either flee or convert by Islamic extremists.
As tens of thousands in northern Burkina Faso are being displaced each month because of extremist violence and insecurity in the region, a source told Aid to the Church in Need that nearly 2,000 people fled from their homes in the villages of Hitté and Rounga in September.
A local source who spoke with the Catholic charity and requested anonymity detailed what happened in Hitté.
“At the beginning of September, 16 men arrived in the village, intercepting the villagers who were returning from the fields,” the local source was quoted as saying.
“Some of the men forced the people to enter the church where they threatened the Christians and ordered them to leave their homes in the next three days, while others set fire to whatever they found in their path.”
Because of this, the source said, Hitté no longer has any Christians.
Following the ultimatum given in Hitté, the militants are said to have traveled to Rounga, where villagers there faced a similar type of evacuation ultimatum.
“Almost 2,000 people have fled these two villages alone,” the source estimated, adding that the displaced families have found shelter in another village.
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“They are by no means the only ones facing this situation,” the source added. “[R]ather, they are just part of a program by the jihadists who are deliberately sowing terror, assassinating members of the Christian communities and forcing the remaining Christians to flee after warning them that they will return in three days’ time — and that they do not wish to find any Christians or catechumens still there.”
The incidents in Hitté and Rounga come as there has been a drastic escalation in deadly attacks by Islamic extremist groups in northern Burkina Faso — as well as across the Sahel region of West Africa.
Church leaders say that a number of those attacks have targeted Christian communities.
The comments from the source who spoke with Aid to the Church in Need are similar to remarks from an anonymous local Christian who spoke with the interdenominational aid charity Barnabus Fund after an attack in the town of Arbinda earlier this year.
“There is no Christian anymore in this town [Arbinda],” the source told Barnabus Fund. “It's proven that they were looking for Christians. Families who hide Christians are killed. Arbinda had now lost a total of no less than 100 people within six months.”
Since the violence began escalating in the once seemingly peaceful country in 2015, the U.N. reported this month that nearly 300,000 people have fled from their homes and over 500 have been killed.
Of the nearly 300,000 displaced, most have been displaced this year as the number of violent attacks in Burkina Faso has continued to increase in 2019.
The U.N. notes that there has been an average of 30,000 people displaced from their homes each month since the beginning of 2019. Most of the displaced are living in host communities while some are living at displacement sites.
At least 2,024 schools have been shut down and over 330,000 kids are being deprived of an education.
Over the month of July, there was a 35 percent surge in the number of health facilities closed because of insecurity. As over 60 percent of health facilities are closed in Burkina Faso, the U.N. estimates that over 626,000 people are without access to basic health care.
“The revised Humanitarian Response Plan, released in August, is calling for US$187 million to provide urgent assistance to nearly 1.3 million people, including 800,000 affected by violence and insecurity,” the U.N. report states. “As of 29 August, only 30 percent of the required funding has been mobilized.”
As the rapid growth of militant attacks continues in Burkina Faso, three groups have been most active: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the Macina Liberation Front, and Ansaroul Islam.
Chrysogone Zougmore, who heads the Burkinabe Movement for Human and Peoples' Rights, told The Washington Post in August that attacks targeting Christian communities are “planting seeds of a religious conflict.”
"They want to create hate,” Zougmore was quoted as saying. “They want to create differences between us."