Burkina Faso bishop: ‘The faithful are fleeing terrorism, but they are holding on to their faith’
THE SITUATION IN THE SAHEL REGION REMAINS WORRYING. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Bishop Laurent Dabire, who heads the Diocese of Dori, in northern Burkina Faso, reports that there has been some improvement in the security situation, but that terrorism is still far from being under control. It continues to have a profound impact on the life of the people and of the Church. The situation is further complicated by the pandemic.
What is the situation in the country generally?
The overall situation in the country is grave, given the security crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, which between them have profoundly affected the people. We are caught between two fronts. Fortunately, the incidence of the coronavirus has remained generally lower in Africa, although the increase in cases is worrying. The direct consequence of both these factors is a humanitarian crisis, both for those who have been uprooted and for those communities which have welcomed them. Despite the resilience of the population, the situation is very hard for ordinary people, who live from hand to mouth and have lost their normal means of subsistence.
What is the situation like in the diocese of Dori? Have things calmed down there? Or have there been more violent incursions?
After a few months of peace, from April to September 2020, the territory of the diocese has suffered at least ten terrorist attacks, from September 10, 2020 right up to the present day. The people continue to be forced to leave their villages, either as a result of the attacks or because of the threats that they will be massacred unless they leave. Nonetheless, these attacks have diminished in number and are causing fewer deaths. However, it is still impossible to travel in certain areas, which remain dangerous owing to the presence or operations of terrorist groups.
Is it possible for the Church, the priests, sisters and catechists to do their work in the diocese?
The parishes of Aribinda and Gorgadji remain completely cut off and there is no pastoral activity there whatsoever. In these two areas the central parishes have been emptied of Christians as have he villages served by them, where there are still a few Christians remaining, But they are inaccessible because of the danger of travelling on the roads. The parish of Djibo is operating at a minimal level, thanks to the presence of one catechist. In the other parishes which are still open—namely Dori, Sebba and Gorom-Gorom—pastoral activities are continuing on a regular basis.
You have had five years of insecurity. How have the communities of believers adapted to this situation?
The Diocese of Dori is continuing to function and guarantee a Catholic presence in the Sahel region of the country, albeit in a smaller area and with difficulty. Our priests organize the Masses, catechesis, the sacraments, and the pastoral meetings on a daily basis. The sisters, with the exception of two communities which have been closed, are taking care of the other diocesan activities, such as running the primary school in Dori, the Dori girls’ school, the Good Shepherd missionary welcome center in Dori and, the “Les Dunes” center in Gorom-Gorom, which includes an orphanage, a maternity unit, a dispensary and a pharmacy, as well as guestrooms. In addition, the sisters help with the pastoral activities such as catechesis, liturgy, supporting the Catholic Action movements and the spiritual groups and associations.
How are the Catholics coping with such a difficult situation?
Our faithful have a great spirit of perseverance and resilience. They continue to live their faith, whatever the cost. Not once since 2015 have we heard of any case of desertion, abandonment, or apostasy. The faithful are fleeing the terrorism, which they are powerless to resist, but they are keeping their faith. Even when the terrorists have threatened people, trying to force them to convert, they have not succeeded. The people have simply fled, bringing their faith with them. In Gorom-Gorom and Sebba there has been some cooling off on the part of some of the faithful who, for fear of the attacks, are no longer coming to Sunday Mass. This is also noticeable in other pastoral activities. Our pastoral workers need to find strategies to encourage and support these weaker members of the community.
How were you able to celebrate Christmas and Epiphany in this context?
In the three fully functioning parishes, and in Djibo as well, the Christmas Masses were celebrated with joy and were attended by a great throng of the faithful. On the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord—given that Epiphany was so early this year—we celebrated the children’s Christmas in all the parishes, with the usual attendance in large numbers of Muslim children as well. In Djibo, where we had to cancel the celebration due to the particular situation there, the Muslim children clamored for it and I was forced to reinstate it. We celebrated it last January 26 and it went really well. Three cheers for the children!
The bishops’ conference, of which you have been president since 2019, also includes the neighboring country of Niger. What news do you have of Niger?
I have very little news from there. I only know that the attacks have continued there as well, often with high numbers of deaths. There too the insecurity, combined with the pandemic, has caused a slowdown in pastoral activities. For this reason, the two bishops from Niger have been unable to take part in our episcopal assemblies since February 2020.