Towns have been left with no churches as militant violence devastates and disperses communities in Burkina Faso. There are now over one million internally displaced people. Low rainfall and Covid-19 have deepened the crisis. Open Doors partners are working to provide emergency assistance.
It was once a country where people of different religions peacefully coexisted, a beacon of religious tolerance. But a recent upsurge in violence is devastating and dispersing communities in the landlocked, Muslim-majority country of Burkina Faso – and the onset of Covid-19 has only worsened matters, affecting many Christians.
Attacks, executions and kidnappings of civilians are commonplace in Burkina Faso, perpetrated mostly by militant groups in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Christians are amongst those targeted. In February, Open Doors reported on the tragic deaths of Pastor Omar Tindano, his son and nephew, and deacon Lankoandé Babilibilé.
Pastor Woba* narrowly escaped a similar fate. Around the same time he was at his home with his wife and baby daughter when abductors approached the house. It was too late to run away, so they locked themselves in. The group tried to enter, even using a key. “Our daughter, being afraid, was crying so much,” the pastor recalls. “But they left.”
After these incidents, some 30 other pastors and many church members fled Sebba, eastern Burkina Faso, where attackers stipulated rules that everyone must follow. “Men should wear cropped trousers and grow their beards while women should wear the veil,” a local health worker shared. “These rules are not just for non-Muslims. If you do not follow them, you are executed – even if you are a Muslim.”
Over one million people are currently internally displaced – more than five per cent of the country. Nearly half of this figure have been newly displaced this year – more than a fivefold increase on the 87,000 figure from January 2019.
"You will find no open churches" Pastor Karim*
The situation is made graver due to Covid-19 – a government response plan to coronavirus highlighted major inadequacies, including insufficient screening checks at borders and a severe shortage of beds – as well as low rainfall. Large numbers of Burkinabe are facing hunger, many of them Christians.
Pastor Karim* explains, “From Djibo to Dori (forming the northeastern triangle of Burkina Faso), you will find no open churches. The Christians have fled to different refugee camps or safe cities such as Kaya, Kongoussi, Sapouy, Djibo, Ye, Ouagadougou, etc.
“Hardly any of the Christians can be found in refugee camps. They will always go to the church upon arrival to look for help, which makes it hard for them to benefit from the gifts or help distributed to the displaced through the mayor office and social services.”
Local churches are welcoming the displaced but resources are stretched. Jacques* pastors a church in Kongoussi. He reports, “At first, we receive the displaced at church, in the compound before finding them a place to stay. It is a very difficult procedure as it is very complicated to find accommodation.” Even if accommodation is found, rent still needs to be paid, but getting income is difficult.
Christians with aid from an earlier distribution
It is not just the physical needs that need tending. “A lady arrived in Kongoussi after her husband was killed and a week later she gave birth,” Jacques explains. “Children arrive traumatised, shocked and afraid because many witnessed the killing of their dad or family members.”
“When we fled, we came here with nothing. We are happy because with this food we can survive.”
The UN has expressed concern over the strain caused by the displacement. “Host populations are at a breaking point as they share the little resources they have while also facing themselves poverty, strained health services and rapidly disappearing livelihoods,” the agency reports. “For people who have fled wars and persecution and for the communities hosting them, the additional impact of Covid-19 is devastating.”
Open Doors partners are in the process of organising emergency assistance in countries across West Africa. Among them are 872 families from the north of Burkina Faso, who will benefit from rice, maize, beans and oil for three months. “Thank you for giving us this food,” one recipient said after receiving aid in a distribution earlier this year. “When we fled, we came here with nothing. We are happy because with this food we can survive.”
*Names changed for security reasons