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Islamists insurgency threatens Africa’s Sahel region

Until recently, Christians and Muslims in Burkina Faso have maintained peaceful interfaith co-existence, but that is now under threat as Islamist militants target churches.

A displaced woman in Dablo, Burkina Faso, looks on while she waits for help March 1, 2019. (CNS photo/Luc Gnago, Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya (CWR) – African Catholic leaders are cautioning that an Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region threatens to escalate in a manner similar to that in Syria.

The cleric fears heightened early this month after attacks by extremist militant groups intensified in Burkina Faso. Muslims, mostly of the Sunni branch, make up more than 60 percent of the nation’s 20 million inhabitants, with Catholics being 19 percent, according to government data. Until recently, Christians and Muslims maintained peaceful interfaith co-existence, but that is now under threat as Islamist militants target churches.

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in the southwestern part of the Sahel region, which is a 3360 mile long stretch in North Africa that lies between the Sahara desert to the north and Savanna to the south. Others countries in the region including Mali, Niger, and Mauritania are battling Islamist groups linked to the al-Qaeda terror network that has been moving south into Burkina Faso.

Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, the archbishop of Ouagadougou ,and other senior Catholic Church leaders in Burkina Faso say the situation is critical, while seeking to encourage the people.

“In the face of this disturbing wave of violence in Burkina Faso,” Ouedraogo stated earlier this month, “we continue to express our strong condemnation and assure our brothers and sisters of our prayers, solidarity, communion and compassion.”

In the latest attack, at least 39 people were killed and more than 60 injured, when five buses ferrying Canadian mining firm workers were attacked by the suspected Islamist militants on November 6. The majority of those slain were gold miners.

Across the region, hundreds of civilians have died in Burkina Faso in the five year insurgency. An estimated 300,000 people have displaced to the south with nearly 2,000 schools being closed in the ensuing inter-communal violence. The Islamists have struck state installations, raided remote villages, and have engaged in a growing number of kidnappings and robberies.

Ansarul Ul Islam, a militant group affiliated with the Algeria based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is believed to be behind the attacks. The group is active in Burkina Faso and the neigboring Mali. According to Church sources, it has been carrying out attacks in Burkina Faso and escaping on motorcycles into Mali. Operating in Burkina Faso under the name Ansar Dine, it has also been kidnapping foreigners for ransom.

The militant group is one of many carrying out insurgencies in countries in the Sahel. According to analysts, AQIM, AQIM-affiliated groups, and the Islamic State (IS) have been exploiting government weaknesses to launch the attacks as they seek  to establish a stronger foothold in north Africa.

Church leaders report that citizens, the majority living on subsistence farming, have been unable to plant or harvest their crops due to the increasing attacks. Hundreds now have to rely on humanitarian aid for survival because they cannot access their farms.

Early this month, the bishops in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger said the crisis had its roots in a diversity of causes including historical, religious, economic, ideological, and political.

Bishop Laurent B. Dabire, the Burkina–Niger Episcopal Conference president, and Bishops Jonas Dembélé, the President of the Episcopal Conference in Mali, released a statement on the crisis two weeks ago at an inter-conference workshop on security in the Sahel in Ouagadougou. They stated, in part:

This crisis is essentially manifested by daily violations of fundamental rights on the human person: violation of the right to life characterized by mass killings, violation of the right to religious freedom resulting in attacks of places of worship, targeted attacks on religious leaders or members of particular religious denominations, violation of the right to education for all resulting in the closure of schools, violation of the right to property characterized by forced appropriations, violation of the right to live in a secure and peaceful environment.

The bishops observed that civilians, as well as defense and security forces, were paying a heavy price in the wave of violence, which they say is “fostered or fueled by many factors: poverty and ignorance of populations, poor governance, corruption, radicalization and religious intolerance, weapons and narcotics trafficking, the predation of natural resources by both internal actors and external, private or state, the weakening of the Sahel states and the annihilation of local initiatives of development by the same actors.”

“Many initiatives have already been undertaken… to relieve the suffering of the people,” wrote the bishops. “Unfortunately, although laudable, they remain below expectations, especially as the humanitarian crisis continues to increase and insecurity to spread.”

The leaders want the militants to end their insurgency in the name of respecting life as a sacred gift of God, and for governments to make the protection of the populations a priority.

The archbishops, bishops, priests and other experts at the November meeting appealed to leaders of religious communities to educate on the respect of life, help preserve religious freedom, human and spiritual values, and promote religious dialogue, among other actions.

“We make an urgent appeal to the affected population, so that they know how to remain worthy and stay confident without giving into hatred nor revenge,” said the leaders.

At the same time, they have committed to collaborate with others to put to an end the killings and the displacement of the populations.

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About Fredrick Nzwili 26 Articles
Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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