Why Christians in Burkina Faso are in ‘a fight for survival’

June 20, 2019 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

In Burkina Faso, the rapidly increasing grip of Islamic militants on northern and eastern parts of the country has sent Burkinabes fleeing from their homes, schools and and churches. In recent months. militants have driven out at least 100,000 people. And since February in northern Burkina Faso, there have been seven attacks targeting churches or believers, claiming 23 lives (including five church leaders).


Recently in late May, an Open Doors team traveled to the country to speak with church leaders and learn more about what’s happening; why it’s happening; and the impact on the church there. They also brought back 19 specific needs that Burkina Faso church leaders are asking us to pray over.

What’s happening in Burkina Faso?

Christians in Dablo gather for funerals of six believers killed May 12.

In the landlocked country of 19.1 million people, the church and general population have seen escalating and deadly violence from Muslim extremists. Recent attacks have targeted church buildings and Christians, suggesting the involvement of Islamic extremists or what the population is calling jihadists.

The country’s foreign minister says tackling terrorism has become a fight “for the very survival” of the Sahel region, which incorporates the countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Militants have forced 100,000 in Burkina Faso alone to flee their homes in recent months.

The Muslim-majority nation (Christians make up roughly 35 percent) has long been known for its peaceful coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups. But now, Muslim extremist violence is on the rise, fueling panic and fear over decreasing stability in the greater Sahel region. (Burkina Faso is strategically positioned on the southern end the Sahel.)

Since February, extremist attacks on Christians and churches in Burkina Faso include:

  • The February 15 murder of a 72-year-old priest on the border at Nohao. He and two other priests walked into a jihadist attack at the post as they traveled from Togo.
  • The February 19 murder of a 54-year-old pastor on the road between Tasmakatt and Gorom-Gorom. Pastor Jean Sawadogo was killed on his way traveling to Gorom-Gorom. He leaves a widow and seven children.
  • The April 23 murder of a pastor near the main town of Arbinda in the Sahel.
  • The April 28 murder of six people at a church in the small town of Silgadji near Djibo in northern Burkina Faso. Suspected Islamic militants arrived on seven motorcycles around midday, towards the end of the service, and killed the 80-year-old pastor, his son, brother-in-law, a primary school teacher and two others. They were told to convert and when they refused, they were executed one by one. Pastor Pierre Ouedraogo leaves behind his wife and six other children.
  • The May 12 killing of six people, including a priest, by gunmen who stormed a church in Dablo in northern Burkina Faso during worship. They burned down the church, shops, health center and other community buildings.
  • The May 13 execution of four believers in Singa, in the municipality of Zimtenga in the central north. The church members were bringing a statue of Mary back to their parish in Zimtenga when they were intercepted. The attackers let the children go before executing the four adults.
  • The May 26 murder of four worshipers during a church worship service in Toulfe.According to news agency Fides, eight heavily armed individuals arrived in the village around 9 am on four motorcycles. They entered the church and shot dead three people. A fourth Christian died later as a result of wounds. An unknown number of people were injured. The attack came just as Open Doors workers returned from Burkina Faso with a call to urgent prayer for believers there. (In an unrelated event on May 25, followers of African Traditional Religions destroyed two churches in Lena and Walana villages in Bobo Diouloso Area after locals converted to Christianity.)

Speaking on behalf of the Federation of Islamic Association of Burkina Faso, Aboubacar Hugo told media: “The attacks are increasingly targeting buildings and religious leaders, aiming to oppose different faiths.”

Some reports indicate that much of the eastern region of the country has been carved up” in a kind of Islamic state by several local leaders of the various extremist groups. The groups have attacked security forces, schools, other state symbols and executed suspected government spies, “bestowing both benevolence and cruelty on people under their powers.”

One resident in the eastern region testified of increasing Sharia law: “At 6 p.m., everyone has to go to the mosque, then straight home. In the middle of the night, you must go and listen to sermons. You’re forbidden to criticize them. Women have 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. They’ve forbidden prostitution in the [gold] mines—they slit their throats. They kill someone about once a month, I’d say, and it’s always people they’ve warned. Except the prostitutes. They don’t warn them. They just kill them.”

Why is it happening?

Many fleeing Christians, including this young woman and her infant son, have found refuge in Pastor Hosseini’s home. The pastor and his family are hosting 20 believers.

Communal conflicts over land, water and other resources are not uncommon in the West-African, gold-rich country. But in 2014, the situation started deteriorating when a popular revolution ended the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaoré. The revolution created a power vacuum that extremist groups quickly filled, exploiting ethnic fault lines and fanning ethnic strife. Since then, four major factors have come into play:

Establishment of key Islamic militants. Three key Islamist militant groups have reportedly established a front in northern and eastern Burkina Faso: Ansarul Islam, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). There are numerous smaller groups, not all of which are affiliated to larger ones or pledge allegiance to Islamist ideology.

Fertile recruiting ground for militants. Following their visit to the country, our Open Doors team explained that there are multiple factors contributing to the violence in Burkina Faso, including political, economic, tribal and religious reasons. Widespread frustration with the lack of jobs has made Burkina Faso a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists.

“In terms of the latter, many of the countrys youths have been radicalized by the teaching of the Islamist preacher Malam Dicko, who’s also the leader of the Ansarul Islam (Helpers of Islam) extremist group,” our team reports. “Church leaders told us he was able to air his teachings unhindered on local radio stations. At the time, the church didn’t realize what was going on. But now they see the result.”

According to The Crisis Group’s Rinaldo Depagne, as quoted in an article from The Guardian, “these groups are successful because they have a double narrative. Hardline Islam, but also the social speech: ‘We are going to give you a much more egalitarian system, and bring services the state doesn’t give you.’”

Government brutality. Sadly, the government’s response seems to have fueled the violence. Leaders declared a state of emergency in seven of the country’s administrative regions; but many say these government measures are accompanied by brutality. These brutalities have given rise to
“self-defense” militias and, with that, increased ethnic violence.

Shifting tactics. The targeted attacks on churches show a shift in tactics, Djallil Lounnas, an expert on militancy in the Sahara at Morocco’s Al Akhawayn University, told the BBC.

“Usually religious minorities have not been touched, especially Christian minorities, since jihadist violence broke out in the area,” he says.

This is particularly troubling given Burkina Faso’s long history of religious tolerance, but it forms part of a jihadist strategy to sow religious and inter-communal conflict.

An unexpected humanitarian crisis

Pastors who have fled the area living in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP).

In general, the violence has left hundreds dead and tens of thousands of civilians displaced since January. According to UN figures, the near-daily attacks on civilians have resulted in:

  • the displacement of more than 135,000 Burkinabes, two-thirds of them since the start of 2019.
  • the closure of numerous schools. At one point, 1,111 out of 2,869 schools had been closed (according to the BBC). Now nearly 1,000 schools remain closed, leaving some 119,000 children without education. During the Open Doors team visit, teachers told us: “The Jihadists are replacing state schools with Arabic schools. We received severe warning to leave. The government succeeded in relocating some pupils and teachers to safer areas.”
  • 250,000 people have no access to medical care because health centers have been forced to close or have cut back services; some have been burned down in attacks.

The impact has been great on the church specifically. Open Doors has been told that an unknown number of pastors and their families have been kidnapped and remain in captivity. The increased insecurity has caused great fear among the Christian population.

Church leaders shared with our team that the church in Burkina Faso was not prepared for the present situation. A few pastors have preached on persecution and warned about its imminence, but no one was prepared for the scale and speed of the deterioration in security. More than 200 churches have been closed in northern parts of the country to avoid further attacks. Holding Sunday worship services has been discouraged in most rural areas. Among those affected most adversely are the Assembly of God churches, who are represented most prominently in the north.

“The jihadists started threatening the church, sending warnings to stop worship services in the communities of Arbinda, Dablo, Djibo, Kongoussi and others,” our team reported. “At first, they were against the mode of worship in the churches where women and men gathered in the same church. Then, in no time, the believers were warned not to hold any Christian worship services.”

More than 5,000 pastors and church members have been forced into Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps or are taking refuge with family and friends in the south, central regions or in the capital city of Ouagadougou.

“The largest number of displaced Christians is in Kaya, in the central north, where nearly 1,000 displaced Christians had registered by the time of our visit, with more arriving every day.

People fled with little more than the clothes on their backs, our team reports. Most church schools in the north have been closed. Many Christian children are out of school and cannot afford school fees in their new areas.

Throughout the country, churches are arranging food collection to support the affected believers but are unable to keep up with the need.

This is the biggest shock of our lives as Christians,” says Pastor Daniel Sawadogo from Dablo. “Never in our wildest imagination did we think this would happen and that today we would be left at the mercy of other believers in safer areas. We have left everything we labored for. Our children have been pushed out of school. Some of our men have been killed without provocation.”

Many Christians have found refuge in the home of Pastor Hosseini. His family is hosting 20 displaced Christians, including a young woman who gave birth to a baby boy four days before the visit from the Open Doors team.

Speaking for church leaders, Pastor Bamjoraa Philip in Kaya IDP camp shared with our team and begged for help: “Come and help us brothers and sisters around the world, we are overwhelmed by the situation. Your act of love is what we need in times like these. God will bless you as you help us.”

‘This will strengthen the church’

But it’s not all hopeless. Church leaders agree that just as persecution has strengthened, built and advanced the church throughout history, this violence will do the same in Burkina Faso.

Bishop Philippe Ouedraogo, archbishop of Ouagadougou, warned Christian communities in northern Burkina Faso against giving in to ethnic and religious strife: “We, the religious denominations and all the people must say, ‘No, we will not get bogged down in this dynamic, this ethnic, religious disarray. We are a people, we will remain a people, the grains of a single basket.’”

Some churches are determined to continue their evangelistic efforts in the affected areas. And leaders from the Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions (FEME) have said they believe the church will stand firm:

“During the revolution, the church was threatened by the state and experienced growth,” Pastor Phillipe Bamogo said. “So, the church will come out stronger than it is now.

“We know what the enemy can do; his ways and strategies are widely revealed to us in the Scriptures. Pain may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. We are suffering today, but our hearts are strong in the Lord. He will come to our rescue in due course.

“We are taking solace in the words of our master Jesus Christ: ‘I will never leave nor forsake you.’ We believe this situation will strengthen the church.”

At the end of their visit, our team concluded, “The level of trauma among the displaced believers is extremely high, and they will live with it for a very long time if they are not helped. The situation needs urgent attention. Believers need practical help with things like food, clothing, shelter (tents) and medicine, and spiritual support like trauma care, prayer and presence. They also need discipleship training and help in how to respond to this situation in a biblical way.”

19 prayers from Burkina Faso church leaders

Burkina Faso church leaders shared their requests. Says Pastor Theodore Sawadago from Kaya Assemblies of God: “Join us in praying for pastors, their families and church members to be strong and able to withstand persecution. We also need prayer for our administrative and political authorities to know how to handle the situation with wisdom.”

1. Thank the Lord for providing the means for Open Doors visit to believers in Burkina Faso and for His protection over staff. Also thank Him for the encouragement He ministered through the team.

2. Please pray for the Lord’s comfort and grace to be at work in the lives of all who have lost loved ones in the recent attacks and that He would be close to the brokenhearted.

3. Pray that Christians would have the grace to remain firm in the faith as they face increased hostility.

4. Pray that Christians would not be tempted to give in to tribalism and anger towards Muslims, but would continue to trust the Lord to fight for them.

5. Many people, including Christians, have been severely traumatized by the deterioration in security and displacement. Please pray that the Lord will be at work in their lives to bring healing and comfort.

6. The extremist ideologies sweeping across the Sahel have brought widespread destruction. Please pray that the Lord would use these circumstances to display His glory, that He would draw hearts to Him.

7. Thank the Lord for the hope that church leaders display in the midst of the crisis. Pray He would enable them to impart hope to fellow believers and hold on firmly to Him.

8. Thank the Lord for the churchs efforts to provide for the needs of fellow Christians through church collections. Pray for God’s provision to all those who are displaced.

9. Thank God for the selfless service and the amazing example of all pastors and believers who have opened their homes to the displaced. Pray for the Lord’s continued provision for all involved.

10. Pray for the role the church plays in ministering to people. Thank the Lord for their determination to continue sharing Christ with the lost. Pray for wisdom and courage.

11. Pray for non-governmental organizations working in this area to bring relief to the displaced. Pray for protection and provision in resources to fulfill their work.

12. Pray that God will make a way for medical services to be restored across affected areas.

13. Please pray for wisdom and accountability for government leaders as they seek to create order in the affected areas.

14. Pray for all international forces involved in the fight against extremists in the larger region. Pray they can bring stability and prevent the spread of violence to Burkina Faso’s neighboring countries.

15. Pray for church unity in the midst of the crisis.

16. Pray specifically for those caught under the rule of extremist groups in the eastern regions. Ask God to grant abundant grace and draw many into a relationship with Himself.

17. Pray for the salvation of the aggressors. 

18. Pray for the Lord’s protection over children who are exposed to trauma and suffering while being forced out of school. Pray that the church would find a way to help their kids cope with these things and continue some form of schooling despite the circumstances. Pray for their protection against unhealthy anger and radical ideologies.

19. Pray for wisdom and provision for Open Doors as we determine the appropriate response. Pray for protection over staff as they travel to volatile regions in the country and in the greater Sahel regions.

Open Doors does not currently work in Burkina Faso; however we do have teams working in the bordering countries of Mali, Ivory Coast, Niger and Togo—supporting victims of violence and providing economic improvement projects alongside training and literature.