West African bishops meet in Burkina Faso against backdrop of jihadist terror

THE THIRD PLENARY Assembly of the bishops of West Africa took place May 13-20, 2019 in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The country has been hard hit by terrorism; in May alone, 15 Catholics—including a priest, Father Simeon Yampa—were killed in suspected jihadist attacks. Bishop Martin Happe, a native of Germany who heads the Diocese of Nouakchott in Mauritania, took part in the assembly of bishops. He spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN):

How did the bishops react to the spate of killings?

Funeral of Father Simeon Yapa

Bishop Martin Happe: In spite of these dramatic events, more than a hundred bishops came to Burkina Faso. It was a sign of encouragement for the Church and the entire country. There is violence throughout the region. Islamist fundamentalists are trying to stir up conflict between ethnic groups and between Christians and Muslims. It must also be said that most of the victims of this wave of violence are Muslims.

What makes the Christians a target for terrorists?
I worked in Mali for 22 years, mostly in the northern part of the country. The Islamists began specifically targeting the small Christian minority there. However, up to 160,000 Muslim refugees from Mali have sought refuge in Mauritania. These Muslims are also considered “heretics” by Islamists because they are not followers of Wahhabism and fundamentalist Islam. Of course, for the terrorists, non-Muslims are far worse. That is why they specifically target Christians.

Is religious fanaticism the only driver of persecution?
Religious fanaticism is often just an excuse. Everything revolves around natural resources and political power. It is a very complex issue.

How do the Christians react to the terrorism?
Over the last few days, both the West African bishops and the government in Burkina Faso have spoken out clearly: ‘we will not let them divide us. They will not be able to separate us into warring religious and ethnic groups.’ Because that is exactly what the terrorists want to see happen.

Are moderate Muslims given opportunities to state their views?
That is a key point. The concluding statement issued by the assembly called on religious leaders to work together towards mutual goals. We have to unite and take a clear stand: Those who kill in the name of God cannot proclaim themselves to be God’s messengers. We have to promote this solidarity among faith groups, which already exists. It is the only tool we have to combat violence.

What is the situation in Mauritania, where Catholics are a tiny minority?
In Mauritania, the government and people set great store by the fact that theirs is an Islamic and not an Islamist republic. Islamism is strictly monitored. Attacks have been planned, but these were thwarted before they could be carried out. As a Catholic bishop, I travel all over the country and I am not afraid. However, I do not know how long this will last.

What can Christians in the West do?
Show solidarity—that is very important. The Church in Mauritania, for example, is miniscule, numbering only some 4000 Catholics. There is only one diocese. It is very important that we receive visits and that people show interest, keep themselves informed and pray for us.

For almost 25 years ACN has been supporting the Church in Mauritania. Presently, in addition to covering living expenses for priests and religious, ACN is co-financing the repair of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Nouakchott.

—Volker Niggewöhner