By World Watch Monitor
Gunmen who attacked a Protestant church in Burkina Faso on 28 April asked the pastor and five others to convert to Islam before they killed them, World Watch Monitor has learned.
Last Sunday’s violence in the West African country appears to have been the first attack, specifically on a church building, in which people have been killed by Islamist extremists. In February, a Spanish Catholic priest was killed by armed men, believed to be Islamist militants, in the south-east region of Nohao, as he was returning from Togo.
Burkina Faso is long known for its peaceful co-existence among religious communities, unlike neighbouring Mali. But over the past two years, attacks by Islamist militants, military operations, and waves of inter-communal violence have left hundreds dead and 135,000 displaced, triggering an “unprecedented” humanitarian crisis that has caught many by surprise, says New Humanitarian News.
It reports that “home-grown militant groups, as well as extremists linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State group, have been in the country’s arid north (bordering Mali) since 2016, but have expanded to new fronts in the east and south-west, threatening the stability of neighbouring countries – Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Ivory Coast among them”.
On 28 April, in Sirgadji village in the north-eastern province of Soum, after the Assemblies of God church had ended its service, Pastor Pierre Ouédraogo, 80, and other members were chatting in the church yard. Around 1pm a dozen armed men arrived on motorbikes to storm the place, a local leader, who wanted to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor:
“The assailants asked the Christians to convert to Islam, but the pastor and the others refused. They ordered them to gather under a tree and took their Bibles and mobile phones. Then they called them, one after the other, behind the church building where they shot them dead”.
As well as the pastor, his son Wend-Kuni and brother-in-law, Zoéyandé Sawadogo (a deacon) were killed, plus Sayouba and Arouna Sawadogo, and a primary school teacher Elie Boena.
Adama Sawadogo, seriously injured, was taken to a nearby medical centre: his injuries are not life-threatening.
The assailants then set the church on fire – plus two motorbikes, then stole some sheep and a bag of rice from the pastor’s house before leaving.
The six were buried the same day, in a ceremony attended by both Christian and Muslim communities. (Pierre Ouédraogo is survived by his wife and other six children).
According to other local sources, the same attackers (some known to locals as “young men who’ve been radicalised”) came back into the village the next day “searching for Christians”. The sources say the armed groups can move with impunity because of the lack of law enforcement.
More than 100 Christians already have left for more secure towns further south, such as Kongoussi, over 75 kilometres away.
The International Crisis Group has pointed out the weakness of the country’s security apparatus since the departure of former President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014.
Almost a year ago, a pastor from another Assemblies of God church in the same province, and some of his relatives were kidnapped. Pierre Boéna was kidnapped by armed men on 3 June – with a son, daughter-in-law, two grandsons, and a member of his church and her twin daughters in the village of Bilhoré, 100km from the town of Djibo, near the Mali border. He was later released. It is unclear what happened to the others.
Back in Sirgadji, Pierre Ouédraogo told relatives of his concerns over the deterioration of security in the region, though there had been no incidents in his village. When they advised him to leave the area, he refused, saying he “would rather die for his faith than leave the community he has been serving for about 40 years”, the community leader told World Watch Monitor.
The Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions in Burkina Faso (FEME, for its French acronym) expressed its concern over the killings:
“It’s not only the church of Sirgadji that has been attacked; all the values of tolerance, forgiveness and love that have always led our country have been hurt”, said the federation’s president, Henri Yé, in a statement on 30 April. “The freedom of worship consecrated by our fundamental law [the Constitution] has been flouted.”