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Why are Catholics being killed in Burkina Faso?

Armed men targeted a Catholic church in Burkina Faso Sunday, killing at least 15 people and injuring two others.

Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Bomborokuy, western Burkina Faso. Fred P. M. van der Kraaij via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The massacre was reported Feb. 25 by the Diocese of Dori, in the northeast of the landlocked African country, where the nation shares a border with Mali and Niger.

A message issued on behalf of Dori’s Bishop Laurent Birfuoré Dabiré said: “It is with faith and hope that we bring to your attention the terrorist attack on the Catholic community of Essakane-Village today, Feb. 25, 2024, as it gathered for Sunday prayers.” 

“The provisional death toll is 15 worshippers killed, including 12 on the spot and three who died in the CSPS [healthcare facility] as a result of their injuries; and two wounded.”

The message added: “In these painful circumstances, we invite you to pray for the repose in God of those who died in the faith, for the healing of the wounded, and for the consolation of grieving hearts.” 

“Let us also pray for the conversion of those who continue to sow death and desolation in our country. May our efforts of penance and prayer in this blessed season of Lent obtain peace and security for our country, Burkina Faso.”

Pope Francis offered his condolences in a Feb. 26 telegram to Bishop Birfuoré, who is also president of the joint bishops’ conference of Burkina Faso and Niger.

“Recalling that hatred is not the solution to conflicts, the pope invites us to respect sacred places and to fight violence in order to promote the values of peace,” said the message signed on the pope’s behalf by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Was Sunday’s massacre a surprise? Who are the likely perpetrators? And will there be further atrocities? The Pillar takes a look.

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Wait, where’s Burkina Faso?

Burkina Faso is an impoverished West African country that is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Colorado. 

The nation, which gained independence from France in 1960, has a population of more than 20 million people who are divided along ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines. 

A map showing Burkina Faso’s location in Africa and the wider world. Alvaro1984 18 via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Around two-thirds of the population are Muslims. Christians, the second-largest religious community, account for around a quarter. Approximately 20% of Burkinabes, or citizens of Burkina Faso, are Catholic, meaning there are roughly four million baptized Catholics in the country.

The local Church has three archdioceses and 12 dioceses. The Diocese of Dori was established in 2004 from the territory of the eastern Diocese of Fada N’Gourma and the northern Diocese of Ouahigouya.

Catholics account for only 17,000 (1.4%) of the total population of 1.2 million people in the Dori diocese. In 2021, the diocese, which covers almost 14,000 square miles, consisted of just six parishes, 13 priests, and 13 female religious.

A map showing the location of the Diocese of Dori (in red) within Burkina Faso. Fred P. M. van der Kraaij via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Was the massacre a surprise?

If the killings had taken place a decade ago, they would probably have come as a surprise. 

As John Pontifex, head of press and public affairs at the U.K. office of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), told The Pillar Feb. 26, “not long ago Burkina Faso was considered an example of religious co-existence.”

A BBC article from 2016, for instance, was headlined “How Burkina Faso’s different religions live in peace.”

It said that Pope Francis had invited the country’s then president Roch Marc Kaboré to the Vatican “to see what can be learnt from the West African nation’s example of religious tolerance.” 

Yet the report also noted that Burkina Faso — which borders Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, and Mali — was located “in a region under assault from Islamist militant groups.”

In the years that followed, Islamist insurgents made deep inroads into Burkina Faso from the border region between Mali and Niger, clashing with government forces. At least 10,000 people have died in the violence, which has displaced more than two million people.

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As far back as 2019, Dori’s Bishop Birfuoré was trying to draw global attention to the threat to his flock.

Speaking to ACN after the killing of four people who were targeted for wearing crucifixes, he said: “If the world continues to do nothing, the result will be the elimination of the Christian presence in this area and quite possibly, in future, from the entire country.”

Given that jihadists now control an estimated 40% of Burkina Faso, the church massacre was no surprise to those who have tracked recent developments.

“We at ACN, who have followed the situation closely in Burkina Faso, knew things were getting bad but we hoped against hope that something like this wouldn’t happen,” Pontifex said via email Feb. 26.

“It confirms the country’s status as a hotspot of Christian persecution, where in some regions to declare your faith in public means potentially putting your life at risk.”

Burkinabe soldiers pictured in the aftermath of one of the 2022 coups. Public Domain.

Who are the likely perpetrators?

The Diocese of Dori’s statement attributed the Feb. 25 killings to a terrorist attack, but it didn’t identify the perpetrators. No group claimed responsibility in the immediate aftermath.

“As yet, we don’t know precisely who was behind Sunday’s attacks,” said Pontifex. “However, with early reports suggesting that the perpetrators were Islamist militants, it is likely that such an attack taking place during a Christian service sent a signal of intent to strike the Church at its heart.”

Vatican News, the Holy See’s news website, had no doubt that jihadists were to blame. 

“The Feb. 25 attack,” it said, “is the latest in a long string of atrocities committed by Islamist terrorist groups linked to the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the vast Sahel region which also includes Mali and Niger, where terrorism has increased by over 2,000% in the last 16 years causing the displacement of millions of people.”

Captain Ibrahim Traoré, Burkina Faso’s interim leader since September 2022. Public Domain.

Will there be more atrocities?

The jihadist insurgency has destabilized Burkina Faso. In 2022, the country suffered two coups d’état in nine months.

Following Captain Ibrahim Traoré’s installation as the country’s interim leader in September that year, French troops withdrew from the country, while Russian “military experts” are said to have arrived to train Burkinabe troops.

Sunday’s massacre will be especially disturbing to Catholics, but it is far from the only incident of mass slaughter. On the same day, dozens of people were reportedly killed at a mosque in the south of the country. The pope also referred to this attack in his condolence telegram.

“Instability and violence have created a huge displacement crisis,” said Pontifex. “Barely two weeks ago, in another part of northern Burkina Faso, we at ACN announced emergency food aid for Christians forced from their homes by terrorists who gave them a 72-hour ultimatum to leave.”

Until the government regains control of the country, life is likely to be extremely precarious for citizens living to the north and east of the capital, Ouagadougou, where militant Islamist groups have been striking more or less at will.

Burkina Faso’s Catholic minority is just as exposed to the violence as the wider population, while churches may be a particularly attractive target for insurgents intent on shredding the country’s social fabric.

“It is too much to hope that more such incidents will not take place,” Pontifex commented.

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