ROME – Both Burkinabe and American ecclesial authorities have offered prayers and called for the safe release of American Sister Suellen Tennyson, 83, who was abducted by armed gunmen at her convent earlier this week.

In a statement Tuesday, Bishop Théophile Nare of Kaya, Burkina Faso, said that sometime between the night of April 4 and the early morning of April 5, unidentified gunmen entered the convent of the Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross in Yalgo, which is attached to the city’s parish within the Kaya diocese.

Tennyson, who has served the Yalgo parish since October 2014, was kidnapped during the raid and “taken to an unknown destination by her captors who, before leaving, vandalized rooms and sabotaged the community vehicle they tried to take,” Nare said.

“While waiting for the search undertaken to find her to be successful, we remain in communion of prayer for the release of Sister Suellen Tennyson. We also pray for her sisters, for her congregation, as well as for the pastoral workers and the faithful of the parish of Yalgo,” which is located 68.3 miles from Kaya, the capital city of Burkina Faso’s center-north region.

Currently there are five other sisters in the community who are now “in a state of shock,” Nare said, saying the nuns were transferred to Kaya after the incident for security reasons.

Tennyson has been living in Yalgo for eight years and oversaw a health center before her abduction. Her kidnapping marks the first time a nun has been abducted in Burkina Faso since the beginning of the country’s ongoing security crisis, the most recent chapter of which was sparked in 2015 following a series of coups that have left the country increasingly unstable and prey to extremist violence.

The crisis first broke out in October 2014, on the eve of a parliamentary vote to allow a change to the national constitution allowing then-President Blaise Compaoré to hold a third term. The African Union opted to uphold the constitution, leading to a short-lived coup led by a popular movement which ousted Compaoré, who himself had come to power following a 1987 coup against left-wing leader Thomas Sankara.

After Compaoré was ousted, an interim head of state, Michel Kafando, was then named, and general elections were scheduled. However, on Sept. 17, 2015, when the elections were to take place, Burkina Faso’s Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), a controversial autonomous military unit formed under Compaoré and led by General Gilbert Diendéré, carried out another coup d’état against the transitional government.

During the 2015 coup, which was also short-lived, the RSP detained the country’s government, including Kafando, and numerous members of the cabinet.

A new president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, came to power when fresh general elections were finally held in November 2015, however, Kaboré himself was ousted during a military coup in January, after which the leader of the new junta, Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, was declared president, promising to restore security and constitutional rule in the conflict-ridden nation.

Compaoré himself was recently tried for orchestrating the murder of his predecessor as Burkina Faso’s president, Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated in 1987.

On Wednesday, a military tribunal found Compaoré and 13 others guilty of the murder plot, and sentenced Compaoré, who had fled to the Ivory Coast, to life imprisonment in absentia.

Amid Burkina Faso’s political turmoil, the country over the past several years has become a fertile breeding ground for jihadist groups tied to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, who have entered the country and led an increasing number of armed attacks against citizens.

Since 2018, around 2,000 people are believed to have been killed in clashes between these Islamist extremist groups and the Burkinabe military and allied paramilitary groups, and some two million have been displaced.

In many areas of the country, these Islamist groups are said to move freely and are believed to have subjugated local communities to a strict adherence to Islamic sharia law.

Yalgo itself borders the Soum province, where militant groups have been especially active of late, and where attacks against civilians have increased, according to various reports.

The Diocese of Kaya has already been the target of other attacks and kidnappings, including the March 2019 kidnapping of a priest by the name of Father Joël Yougbaré, who oversaw the parish in Djibo, in the northeastern area of Botogui-Djibo. There is still no news regarding his condition or whereabouts.

Just two months after the Djibo attack, in May 2019, there was another assault in the town of Dablo during which the parish priest, Father Simeon Niampa, and five faithful were killed during the celebration of the Mass.

These kidnappings and the ransom demanded for the release of captives have largely been used to finance the activities of these Islamist groups, with westerners being their primary targets.

Father Luigi Maccalli, a missionary belonging to the Society of African Missions (SMA), was kidnapped in Niger between September 17-18, 2018, and was subsequently transferred to Burkina Faso. He was eventually freed in October 2020 in Mali after a long mediation process.

The night of Feb. 10-11 this year, a minor seminary in eastern Burkina Faso was attacked by unidentified armed jihadists, who burned down two dormitories and a classroom. They also torched one car and stole a second one, and destroyed a crucifix.

In an April 5 statement released by the Archdiocese of New Orleans regarding Tennyson’s abduction, Sister Ann Lacour, speaking on behalf of the Marianite congregation, said “We first and foremost are praying for Sister Suellen’s safety and for her release from her captives.”

“Let us pray too for all impacted by the actions of this group, particularly our sisters who witnessed the vandalism and kidnapping. We are in touch with governmental leaders who have pledged to keep us informed as they learn more,” she said.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond joined in the appeal for Tennyson’s safe return saying, “For many years, Sister Suellen ministered to the people of the Archdiocese of New Orleans with great joy.”

“Today, we express our sadness and shock at her abduction and offer our prayers for her safe return. Please join me in praying for Sister Suellen, the Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross, and all who know and love her during this difficult time,” he said.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans will provide updates as more information becomes available.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen