Christians in Burkina Faso seek refuge


Concerned about a rise in violence against Christians in Burkina Faso, Pastor Jacques Ouedraogo changed the time of his Sunday service as a precaution. He believes this saved his life.

Later, his church was one of two targeted by gunmen on May 12 in Dablo in deadly attacks on churches and a religious procession in the last two weeks in Burkina’s formerly peaceful Central North region.

“I could have been one of the martyrs who fell on Sunday,” said the priest.

“We’ve told ourselves our turn will come. Today Christians are potential targets. We’re all scared.”

In the wake of Sunday’s bloodshed, he and hundreds of residents fled Dablo. The town previously served as a safe haven for some of the thousands displaced by violence in the country’s northern Sahel region, a stronghold for militant groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Around 90 kilometres south of Dablo, Kaya is a refuge for the newly displaced, including a farmer, who asked to be identified as Te Wende. Along with his wife, mother, grandmother and two children, he was warned by neighbours to flee.

“When the shooting started, they called and told us to run far away,” he said.

“We don’t know where they came from or what they wanted,” he said.

On Thursday, the United Nations warned the Central North region was the new epicentre for attacks.

Recent targeting of churches threatens to upend traditionally peaceful relations between the Muslim majority and Christians, who make up a quarter of Burkinabes.

“I call on Christians not to panic and yield to the temptation of vengeance, because that could be blind,” the Bishop of Kaya, Theophile Nare, said at a meeting of bishops.

The first church attack was in late April, when gunmen killed a Protestant pastor and five congregants. Subsequently, a Catholic priest and five parishioners were killed in the Dablo attack and a further four Catholics died in another attack.

No one has claimed responsibility, but the Burkinabe government blames “terrorist groups attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us.”

Violent attacks linked to the strengthening jihadist insurgency surged in Burkina as well as across the broader Sahel region, an arid expanse of scrubland just south of the Sahara desert.

Militants work to sow ethnic tensions between farming and herding communities in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to boost recruitment in marginalised communities.

On Thursday, Islamic State’s West African branch claimed responsibility for an ambush that killed 28 soldiers in Niger, one of the deadliest attacks against the military in Niger’s west in recent years.