A Catholic leader in north-east Burkina Faso says Christians in his country have refused to give up their faith in the face of rising jihadist attacks.

Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya was addressing journalists at a Feb. 28 online press conference organized by the pontifical charity, Aid to the Church in Need.

The message came in the wake of the brutal killing of over a dozen Christians in Dori Diocese on Feb. 25.

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.

Kitenga noted that the intent of the terrorists is to diminish the Christian faith in favor of an extremist branch of Islam, but their murderous campaign has had the reverse effect.

“Faith has grown,” the bishop said as he outlined the various ways Christians have stood up to the demands of the jihadists.

“Some Christians accept to die,” he said, and explained that when jihadists want Christians to remove their crosses, and many turn that request down, very often at the expense of being tortured or even killed.

“In some places Christian women were obliged to cover themselves, but they refused to convert to Islam. They always try to find other ways to live their faith, and to pray,” Kitenga said.

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.

Kitenga said the growth of the Church cannot only be measured in terms of the resistance Christians are putting up in the face of evil and noted the very basics of Catholicism – the administration of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation – are still going on in the midst of the violence.

“The other sacraments are also still going on and in the organization of the Church we have Caritas that is trying really hard to respond to the needs of the people,” the bishop said.

“The Church is there in the heart of the world, in the pains and the joys of the people and we really try to live our faith with resilience,” he said.

Kitenga spoke at length about the techniques the jihadists use to impose their radical Islamic ideology. These include telling Christians and the general population not to go to school, not to obey the administration and instructing the men to grow their beard and the women to wear the Islamic veil.

“Sometimes they take one person and kill him in front of everyone,” as a way of coercing adhesion to their demands, the bishop said.

He said jihadists also sometimes order the population to vacate their villages and never to return.

“There is no freedom to worship,” Kitenga said, and explained that in some communities, villagers are allowed to pray, but are forbidden from teaching the Christian faith.

He said two parishes have been shut down in his diocese “because the priests had to leave, and two others are blockaded – nobody can come in or get out.”

Despite these challenges, “Christians are not converting” to Islam, the bishop said.

What the Church is doing in the midst of all this

Kitenga said the Church in Burkina Faso is adapting as best it can to the precarious situation. He said displaced people were being welcomed in many parishes where efforts are made to provide them with food, clothing and shelter.

“In cities, the Church tries to welcome those who are displaced from their villages. It also works on ways to help people get out of poverty, because poverty is a ground where this terrorism will grow,” he said. He explained that many young people are lured to join the terrorist organizations to escape poverty and the promises of a better life.

He said in order to continue evangelizing while minimizing the prospects for attacks, the Church has adjusted Mass schedules, so they are less accessible to terrorists.

The Church is also making use of radio stations to help “the people to hear the word of God.”

He praised the efforts of administrative authorities, the military and Aid to the Church in Need for sparing no effort in coming to the help of a persecuted Church.

Kitenga said the presence of the Church in the midst of such hardship is “a sign of hope for many people.”

Pope Francis expressed spiritual closeness with the people of Burkina Faso after the latest attacks.

In a telegram sent on his behalf by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the pope reiterated his firm belief that “hatred is not the solution to conflicts,” and called for “the fight against violence in order to promote the values of peace.”

Francis’s compassion for the persecuted Christians is not lost on the bishop of Ouahigouya.

“We know that the pope is close to us, and we feel the presence of the universal Church,” Kitenga said.

He bishop also gave special mention to Aid to the Church in Need.

“We get help from ACN, which bring us things that we need. But the main thing is to pray that the Lord will touch the hearts of these terrorists. We pray for their conversion every day. This is very important, that they may convert,” he said.