28 September 2023

Christians face kidnapping, death in the Sahel

Internal displacement is only one of the issues facing Christians in Burkina Faso. Picture: Jacques Bouda/NRC

Maya Pilbrow

11 June 2023

The hot, semi-arid Sahel region in Africa may be fast becoming the most dangerous place in the world to be Christian. 

Persecution watchdog International Christian Concern said violence against Christians had long been an issue in the region but was increasing dramatically in recent years due to a rise in jihadist terror attacks. 

The Sahel lies below the Sahara and includes parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia. 

ICC Africa regional manager Kate Piselli said there were several insurgent terrorist groups operating in the region, including Boko Haram and factions of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.  

She said her organisation had been monitoring the situation for Christians in the region for over 20 years, but the international community had only recently begun to acknowledge the severity of the situation in the Sahel. 

The region drew attention in May when Australian Kenneth Elliott was released after seven years in captivity in West Africa. He had been kidnapped by a North African branch of al-Qaeda in 2016 from a town in northern Burkina Faso where he had run a medical clinic. 

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Ms Piselli said Westerners were at particular risk of abduction. 

“If a missionary is found, they’ll be kidnapped,” she said. 

She said anyone was susceptible to terrorist violence, but Christians were especially at risk and were sought out and targeted in attacks. 

Ms Piselli said priests were regularly murdered and Christian girls and women often dressed as Muslims to avoid being targeted. 

She said terrorist groups capitalised on the political instability in the region leading to devastating consequences. 

Open Doors Australia communications specialist Jordan Scott said extreme violence had become part of the everyday experience for Christians in the Sahel. 

“We now hear of more faith-related killings happening in that region than anywhere else in the world,” she said. 

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In Burkina Faso, political unrest and increasing violence from terrorist groups have contributed to what the Norwegian Refugee Council has called one of the most neglected crises in the world, with two million internally displaced people. 

An Open Doors partner working in trauma centres in Burkina Faso said many women whose husbands were killed by Islamic terrorists had been displaced from their communities. 

The West African country is majority Muslim, but a fifth of the population is Christian, or about five million people according to the World Christian Database. 

Tirham, who wished to be identified by first name only for anonymity, said Christian women in Burkina Faso suffered physical and sexual violence. 

“In Burkina Faso, we are just scratching the surface right now. The trauma care need is just huge,” she said. 

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