[Updated May 3 with further remarks from Assemblies of God leader Michel Ouédraogo]
Christians in Burkina Faso are mourning a deadly attack on a Protestant church as “a new turning point in terrorism” in the West African nation.
Sunday’s shooting at an Assemblies of God congregation in a northern village left six people dead, including the pastor, and represents the first church attack among the recent surge of Islamist violence.
A dozen gunmen on motorcycles stormed the courtyard of the Sirgadji church after worship, fatally shooting its longtime pastor as well as five other congregants after demanding they convert to Islam, according to a statement sent to CT by the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Burkina Faso, Michel Ouédraogo. The attackers also stole from the church and burned its pulpit.
The church was one of the oldest Protestant congregations in the region, which borders Mali to the north, and pastor Pierre Ouédraogo had served there since its founding in the 1980s. The longtime pastor had sensed danger, but told family members “he prefers to die for his faith rather than leave the village where he has served for nearly 40 years,” said his son-in-law, according to the AG statement.
His testimony “shows the commitment that Pastor Pierre Ouédraogo had for the ministry,” Michel Ouédraogo told CT. “His family and members of the church are shocked, and naturally live in fear. However, we firmly believe that God will comfort them in these moments of pain.”
The victims include the pastor’s son and his son-in-law, who served as a deacon in the church. In response, “more than 100 Christians already have left for more secure towns further south, such as Kongoussi, over 75 kilometers away,” reports World Watch Monitor (WWM).
“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 Henri Yé, president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions in Burkina Faso (FEME), in an April 30 statement. “The freedom of worship consecrated by our fundamental law [the Constitution] has been flouted.”
“In the face of blind hatred, let us ask God to give us the strength to spread love, which makes us the children of God,” stated Yé. “The unity of the body of Christ and of the whole nation must be preserved at all costs.”
WWM noted he also called on “Christian organizations to be involved in the search for peace, through prayers and training of Burkinabe youth, in order to involve all sections of the population in the quest for social cohesion and better communal living.”
Ouédraogo, whose denomination includes 4,000 local churches across Burkina Faso, has urged Christians to remember the Romans 12:18 call to live at peace with everyone.
“Revenge has never been a good solution,” the AG leader told CT. “Besides, the God we serve is LOVE. He invites us to love our neighbor. The world is bad, and the church must play its full role. Let us be sentinels, and God will do the rest to the glory of His holy name, even in difficult moments.”
Burkina Faso declared a state of emergency in some of its northern providences last year, due to ongoing violence. The church attack comes days after another half-dozen people were killed by assailants elsewhere in the country. Islamists have been blamed for the abductions of a Spanish Catholic priest and a Canadian geologist earlier this year.
After 200 attacks over the past three years, the government considers Sunday’s shooting to be the first at a house of worship, a sign that the violence could be shifting from indiscriminate to targeted. Burkina Faso is about 60 percent Muslim and about 25 percent Christian (around 20 percent Catholic and 5 percent Protestant).
According to Ouédraogo, a fellow Assemblies of God pastor had been taken hostage along with his church members in the northern part of Burkina Faso last year. The AG leader has urged Christians to maintain their relationships with Muslim neighbors, and commends theneighboring Muslim communities for their efforts to support the church of Sirgadji as they buried the victims of Sunday’s attack.
An op-ed in L’Observateur Paalga suggested that pastors will begin to fear their public worship gatherings could become targets. “Evidently, the forces of Evil who are imposing their dirty war on us, and who know … where it hurts, now want to set religions against each other in a country where, nevertheless, peaceful coexistence between the different religions has always been the bedrock of social cohesion,” read an English translation of the article.
Pope Francis offered prayers for the entire Christian community in Burkina Faso after the Assemblies of God attack.
The country has faced a growing threat of terrorist violence ever since 2016, when al-Qaeda affiliates took hostages and went on a shooting spree in the capital city of Ouagadougou. Seven missionaries were killed in the incident.
The incidents in Burkina Faso in recent years have been attributed to Ansarul Islam, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims, and the Islamic State of the Great Sahara (EIGS). WWM offers more context on the unrest.