What is behind the attacks against the Christian community in Burkina Faso?

For several years now, recurrent attacks attributed to jihadists have regularly targeted Christian religious leaders. Ouoba/AFP

Since 2015, jihadi groups that were previously active in Mali have gradually infiltrated Burkina Faso. Attacks increased throughout 2018 and have become more rampant in 2019, forcing over 100,000 people into exile.

Jihadi groups like the coalition of Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the home-grown Ansaroul Islam, have managed to impose their idealogy of Islam in several areas. They preach equality and brotherhood among different communities as opposed to the dominant religious and social authority that exists.
They are effectively expelling the government from several rural areas in the North and East of the country.

Their attacks target symbols of the state. These include soldiers, schools and health centers. Community leaders including imams, traditional chiefs and politicians who are either perceived as being close to the state, or representing an alternate authority have also fallen victim. Since April 2019, there have been attacks against churches in Soum, Dablo ,Toulfé and Zimtenga. In addition to the kidnapping of the parish priest of Djibo, Joël Yougbaré in March, attacks against Christians have resulted in 20 deaths.

Testing the strength of interfaith dialogue

These attacks are testing the strength of Burkina Faso’s much vaunted interfaith coexistence. The country is often held up as an example of a model pluralist society where the Muslim majority coexists with Catholics, Animists and Protestant minorities.

Furthermore, this coexistence is actively encouraged by the State and religious organisations through permanent or ad hoc organsisations.(Langewiesche 2011; Kaboré 2015).

Yet, in spite of this, interfaith coexistence is more fragile than it appears. The outbreak of violence and attacks on social media against the Fula people is proof that the arrival of jihadis has exacerbated existing community tensions. For several decades, there have been frequent conflicts over land between fula herdsmen and crop farmers.

The attractive power of salafism

When it comes to religion, co-existence often looks like an official stance hiding a less harmonious reality. This harmony is being seriously undermined by the rapidly growing popularity of salafist Islam among young Muslims. It advocates for a symbolic break with other communities, and abstains from interfaith dialogue.

This movement has arisen mainly within the Sunni movement in Burkina Faso, but also around independent preachers and is characterised by an open rejection of other faiths.

This is also the case for evangelical churches, where leaders and faithfuls see other beliefs as evil and are engaging in active proselytising, chiefly aimed at the majority Muslim population.

In the north of Burkina Faso, where the population is overwhelmingly Muslim, these attempts at conversion are destabilising local communities.

In the case of Catholic churches, there is an interesting dynamic that has turned them into targets for attacks. Composed mostly of civil servants of Sahel origin, they are viewed as foreigners and allies of the government.

The President of Burkina Faso, Roch March Christian Kaboré, pays homage to the victims of the attacks. Ahmed Ouoba/AFP

In contrast, in the Eastern regions, where Christian communities are far more numerous and better integrated into the social fabric, jihadi groups have left them alone, for now.

More than an outbreak of religious strife, these attacks are part of a trend characterised by increasing violence and escalating attacks against civilians. The violence has led to disproportionate reactions from the army and massacres by vigilante groups. These responses, which indiscriminately target the Fula community – seen by many in the army and society in general as accomplices of the jihadis –, are leading to an increase in recruits for these groups.

To date, security and defense forces and vigilante groups have killed more civilians than the jihadis. Attacks against Christian communities may well exacerbate this repression, given the indignation of Christian communities, despite calls for calm from Catholic leaders.

This article was originally published in French