Burkina Faso: ‘The Christians we serve do not know if they will live another day’

Father Pierre Rouamba, the prior-general of the Missionary Brothers of the Countryside (FMC), speaks to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about his work with Christians in Burkina Faso, one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Your congregation is active in several West African countries. What is life in this region?

Politically, it is very turbulent. Burkina Faso, where our regional headquarters are, recently suffered two coups d’état, and in 2022, it saw more anti-Christian attacks than any other country in the world. Insecurity is generally rife here, as well as in Mali, Togo, and Benin. Christians in the area are suffering.

And evangelization in these countries is still recent, dating back no more than 150 years. All four countries I mentioned have been hit hard by Islamic terrorism, and in Burkina Faso, tensions and persecution are on the rise. Christians are affected daily by the appalling actions of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Can you tell us what it is like to minister amid danger?

I spent Easter in Kompienga, in Burkina Faso, in a very special atmosphere, because this place is isolated from the rest of the world, cut off by mines and checkpoints, which are manned by terrorists. We can only get in by helicopter. But around Pentecost this year, terrorists began to target the local population. Many people were killed or seriously injured and had to be air-lifted out. The terrorists have also seized livestock and are doing everything they can to get people to convert to Islam. And if people refuse to convert, they are forced to leave, and since the roads are blocked, they must wander around indefinitely in the forest where many die due to the lack of food and care.

In one of our parishes, women tried to break the blockade, thinking that the terrorists would not attack them. But many of them were kidnapped and raped. Some were held for a long time, to be used as sex slaves and returned pregnant after several weeks. These are real tragedies that the media is not reporting.

Father Pierre Rouamba

What plans does the congregation have for the future?

Our next major project is the opening of our regional house in the Diocese of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso. This is also where we want to train lay people, so we can send them on missions to difficult places, and they can bring the Gospel to rural populations.

We are worried about the future. How can forgiveness be achieved in the long term? Because forgetting is impossible. This is one of the reasons we would like to set up support units for spiritual and psychological help. People come to us simply to be listened to.

We also want to serve the victims of violence. So many people have witnessed the killing of a loved one, or they’ve been raped or sexually enslaved; children have been born of these rapes. When all this is over, how will we lead a discourse that is consistent with the Gospel? We will have to heal these wounds. The pastoral work needed will be immense.

There are dangers for the clergy as well. For example, two of your brothers were kidnapped in 2021.

Yes, and what happened is, I dare say, a miracle. They were stopped at a checkpoint by terrorists, who took them blindfolded into the forest, searched them, mistreated them, questioned them about their mission, and asked them to convert to Islam.

Our brothers spoke to them in a genuine spirit of peace, without anger or acrimony. When the terrorists asked them to say an Islamic prayer, they gently refused, explaining that as Christians, they prayed with the Psalms, and that true prayer is a heart-to-heart with God and cannot be imposed. Despite the harassment, they remained peaceful, responding to violence with charity. The terrorists were impressed by this and drove them back to the road and freed them. We thank God for this. It is a sign that love can triumph over hate.

How does this affect the people’s faith?

It is truly striking to note that Christians who had, to some extent, abandoned religious practice are returning to the faith, even though terrorists are doing all that they can to extinguish Christianity. The terrorists prevent Christians from gathering in churches, but families get together in their homes to rekindle their faith through catechism classes and joint celebrations.

It is precisely because these Christians are directly persecuted that they deepen their bond with Christ. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity. In Kompienga, a province under fire, baptismal requests are pouring in, and catechism classes are ongoing.

Christians who suffer hatred for their faith have two options. They can either seek salvation outside of God, by rebelling against Him, or they can seek it in the heart of Jesus Christ Himself. Our Christians have this special grace that allows them to understand, and they place their lives in the hands of their Savior.

What is the charism of your community?

Our congregation was founded in France in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, and dedicated to pastoral work in rural areas. This is still at the heart of our work today, particularly in West Africa. We remain in the most economically and socially deprived areas, promoting the Gospel and sharing the life of rural populations.  And we are often in contact with Muslims and people who have not yet heard of Christ!

Our charism is to bring everyone back to Jesus Christ, and to bring them back in thanksgiving, despite their many difficulties. We want to be a sign of Christian hope in the midst of desolation. We are accompanied by Christ because He Himself suffered like we do. For the Christians we serve, time does not go beyond the next 24 hours. We do not know if we will live another day. This deepens our personal relationship with Jesus.

Through our partnership with ACN, we are experiencing true solidarity, especially through a recent food project for refugees and displaced persons that we implemented in one of our parishes.

—Frank Paulin & Felipe d’Avillez