YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – At least 15 Catholics have been killed in a jihadist attack in Burkina Faso.

It took place in Essakane village in Dori Diocese of the country’s Oudalan province in the northeastern region on Sunday.

The insurgents opened fire inside a church during Mass. According to a statement signed by the Vicar General of the diocese, Father Jean-Pierre Sawadogo, 12 of the victims died instantly, three others died from gunshot wounds.

“At this painful time, we invite you to pray for those who have died in the Faith, that they may rest in the Lord, for the healing of the wounded and for the consolation of those who are grieving,” the priest said.

“Let us also pray for the conversion of those who continue to sow death and desolation in our country … May our efforts of penance and prayer during this blessed season of Lent bring peace and security to our country, Burkina Faso,” Sawadogo said.

Burkina Faso has been plagued by an insurgency for years, with the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need estimating that 40 per cent of the country is controlled by terrorists. The continued attacks have forced over two million people – about 10 percent of the population – to flee.

At least 20,000 people have been killed in Jihadist attacks in the country since 2015, when terrorist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda and the Islamist State (ISIS) launched a murderous campaign in the country.

In February 2020, 24 people were killed and 18 wounded in attacks against a protestant church in the northern village of Pansi.

A similar attack took place in December 2014, when gunmen stormed a church in Hantoukoura, killing 14 Christians, including children.

Catholic bishops in the land-locked country said Dec. 18 that the country’s descent into chaos has seen at least 30 parishes closed, along with Catholic-run institutions such as schools and hospitals.

The African Center for Strategic Studies says Burkina Faso has become the epicenter of jihadist violence in the Sahel – the arid region south of North Africa – with terrorist groups solidifying their grip on significant territories.

The crisis has been made worse by political instability, marked by two military coups in 2022.

The first seven months of 2023 saw at least 7,800 civilian deaths, a significant increase from 2022, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). The African Center for Strategic Studies suggests an estimated 8,600 people might have been killed in violence linked to militant Islamist groups in Burkina Faso last year, a 137 percent jump from 2022 when 3,627 were killed.

The current leader, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, has pledged to tackle the security challenges head-on, but the path to peace remains fraught with difficulties.

The violence in Burkina Faso isn’t an isolated case in the Sahel. A combination of terrorism, political instability, the unchecked circulation of weapons, food insecurity and climate change have all combined to drive terrorism across the region.

The collapse of Libya in 2011 triggered a wave of terrorism across the Sahel, with the Islamic State terrorist organization occupying northern Mali in 2012. The jihadist insurgency subsequently spilled over to Burkina Faso and Niger in 2015. Even before Libya fell, Boko Haram had already started attacks in northern Nigeria in 2009, and later spread its violence to Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

While some attacks have targeted Christian churches, other terrorists have also kidnapped members of the clergy, women and men religious, and seminarians.

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, fatalities linked to militant Islamist violence jumped by 20 percent in 2023, claiming more than 23,000 lives throughout the region.

“Over 80 percent of these deaths were in the Sahel and Somalia,” it states.

The Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa further reports that the violence in the Sahel has led to a humanitarian catastrophe, with over 24 million people in the region requiring  assistance of some kind.

On Oct. 29, Vatican News announced that the Vatican will host a forum on peace in the Sahel in June.

Ahead of the forum, Catholic bishops and experts from Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, the United States of America and Burkina Faso met in a workshop in Ouagadougou with a focus to “turn the spotlight on the Sahel … Because, even if the same tragedies are happening here as elsewhere, we have the impression that the Sahel is a little forgotten.”

Bishop Alexandre Bazié, the auxiliary of Koudougou and President of the Justice and Peace Episcopal Commission in Burkina Faso, said the expectations of the event includes “improving the humanitarian response, improving the mobilization for resources that would encourage a return to peace, strengthening community resilience and cohesion.”