YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Insecurity has continued in Burkina Faso, making key infrastructure like schools and hospitals dysfunctional, according to local bishops.

Burkina Faso is located in Africa’s Sahel region, which separates North Africa from Sub-Saharan Africa. The area has been plagued by instability made worse by several concurrent Islamist insurgencies.

Burkina Faso has one of the largest Christian populations in the Sahel, making up nearly a quarter of the population.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Burkina-Niger on complained about “a situation of persistent insecurity” in Burkina on Feb. 18, and noted that the impact on the life of the local churches has been extremely damaging.

“Overall, some thirty parishes and their associated structures (presbyteries, religious communities, health and education facilities, etc.) remain closed or inaccessible,” reads the statement made at the end of the February 12-18 Plenary Assembly in the Diocese of Kaya.

“The corollary of this is the decline of socio-economic works in some places, the casualization of pastoral workers, the impoverishment of the population, especially in the affected areas, and the continuing phenomenon of internally displaced persons, which is causing socio-demographic upheavals in a noxious social climate,” the bishops said.

Burkina Faso has been gripped by terrorist violence for several years, with major Islamist terrorist groups active in the country aligned to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

These groups originated from Mali, but they have now been threatening to overrun a number of communities in Burkina Faso. The African Center for Strategic Studies says the country is gradually becoming “the epicenter of violence in the Sahel.”

The center further says that militant groups have been spreading across the country, and now have captured over 4,300 square miles of the country’s total land surface of over 108,000 square miles of territory, compared to 3,000 square miles prior to January 2022.

The situation has been worsened by the two military coups – one in January and the second in September of 2022. At least 8,600 people were killed in escalating violence in Burkina Faso in 2023, representing a 137-percent increase from the previous year, which saw over 3,600 fatalities.

The country’s military leader Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who came to power through a coup, promises to tackle the country’s security problem. To prove his intent, the young leader reorganized the defense and security forces, acquired new military equipment and recruited about 10,000 army and navy members.

Christians are paying a disproportionate price in the predominantly Muslim nation. About 64 percent of the population are Muslims, 9 percent belong to traditional African religions and 26 percent are Christians – 20 percent Catholic and 6 percent Protestant.

Earlier this year, an ecumenical group in Burkina Faso known as “Chemin Neuf” published texts of the meditations, prayers and celebrations to be used by Christians around the world during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

“The country is suffering from a continued increase in terrorist attacks, lawlessness and human trafficking; a situation that has resulted in more than three thousand deaths and nearly two million internally displaced people, while thousands of schools, health centers and town halls have been closed and much of the socio-economic and transport infrastructure destroyed,” the text states.

“Christian churches have also become targets of armed attacks: priests, pastors and catechists have been killed during services, and the fate of others who have been kidnapped is unknown,” it continues.

“Christians can no longer practice their faith openly in these contexts; due to terrorism, most Christian churches in the north, east and northwest of the country have been closed, and in many of these areas there are no longer any public Christian worship services. Where worship services are still possible – usually in large cities and under police protection – the celebrations had to be shortened to ensure the safety of the believers,” the text says.

Bishop Laurent Dabiré of Dori, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger, complains that militant groups are bent on creating a caliphate across the Sahel, and that would imply suppressing “the current society, which is multireligious, and marked by dialogue and coexistence. The terrorists want to eradicate this society and all who do not profess the same brand of Islam as them.”

As Christians are forced to flee, pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (CAN) is providing emergency aid to the population.

In a February 9 statement, the group said it was “providing emergency food supplies for more than 340 of the faithful on the brink of starvation who were driven out of their homes in Débé, north-west Burkina Faso by terrorists last November.”

It also said it was supporting about 60 families who host internally displaced persons.