West African bishops meet in Burkina Faso against backdrop of terrorism

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Funeral of Father Simeon Yapa

West African bishops meet in Burkina Faso against backdrop of terrorism

By Volker Niggewöhner/ churchinneed.org and John Newon and Roman Kris/ acnuk.org

The Third Plenay Assembly of the bishops of West Africa has taken place 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?
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?
Bishop Martin Happe: 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?
Bishop Martin Happe: 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?
Bishop Martin Happe: 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?
Bishop Martin Happe: 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?
Bishop Martin Happe: 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.

ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS IN NIGERIA ARE GROWING

Attacks on Christians in Nigeria are growing in ferocity and frequency – according to a priest who works with survivors of extremist violence.

Father John Bakeni, who coordinates aid for those left destitute by terrorist attacks and internally displaced people (IDPs) in Maiduguri Diocese, northern Nigeria, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that more savage attacks by militant groups are increasing insecurity among Christians.

He said: “The attacks on Christians are growing more flagrant and more aggressive. The ongoing conflict with Boko Haram and the attacks by predominantly Islamist Fulani shepherds have instilled a feeling of great uncertainty and fear in us Nigerians.”

“We consider each day we live in safety a blessing, because we do not know what will happen the next day.” Father Bakeni added: “It is very difficult to be a Christian in this part of the world, but our faith encourages us to bravely bear witness to the Gospel.” According to the priest, difficulties in Nigeria range from problems getting approval to build churches to the kidnapping and forced marriage of young girls.

“Even as we speak, people are being killed and their property destroyed.”

But Father Bakeni stressed to ACN that increasing attacks on Christian farmers by militant Fulani herdsmen are a significant problem for the Christian community. He said: “A large number of villages are still under attack. Even as we speak, people are being killed and their property destroyed.” The priest added: “The fact that the people in rural areas are no longer able to cultivate their fields is deeply concerning. They are afraid of being kidnapped or killed.”

Father Bakeni stressed that such extremist attacks are not representative of the views of most Muslims – but he also called on mainstream Muslims to speak out against the attacks.

He said: “Islamism is a distortion of Islam. The silence of the Islamic majority is disturbing. The people should confront Islamism and denounce it.”

Father Bakeni was critical of government efforts to stop the attacks by extremist groups. He said: “The state is not putting forth much effort when it comes to the protection and safety of the lives and property of Christians. We citizens, no matter whether we are Christians or Muslims, expect the state to protect us and ensure our safety. This is the only way that people can go about their business without fear or reservations.”

Father Bakeni said that other dioceses are giving support for displaced families in Maiduguri Diocese, but added: “The greatest support comes from other countries, in particular from ACN and other organisations.”

In Nigeria Aid to the Church in Need is supporting projects, including help for families left destitute by terrorist attacks and rebuilding of church-run welfare support programmes destroyed by extremists.

Sat, 06/08/2019 - 13:01
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