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Father Wenceslao Belem speaks at the Cathedral of Almudena in Madrid, Spain.YouTube

(LifeSiteNews) – A Catholic priest gave testimony in Spain to the extreme persecution the Christians of Burkina Faso are undergoing due the violence and pressure of Islamic jihadists attempting to drive the Christian population out of the western African country.

“Since the first attacks in 2015, Christians can no longer freely exercise their right to religious freedom,” Father Wenceslao Belem said at the Cathedral of Almudena in Madrid, Spain.

“Since the terror began, more than 2,000 schools have been closed,” he continued. “They attack modern schools by turning them into daaras [Islamic Quranic schools]; attack Catholic churches by killing or abducting Christians, especially catechists, priests, and other committed lay people. And they want to impose the wearing of full-face veils on all women, regardless of religion. Many Christian girls have to go to school with the veil to avoid being branded, slandered, beaten or even kidnapped.”

Detailing the ever-present dangers involved in attending Mass on Sundays and the risks for priests and faithful who must travel for access to the sacraments, the priest said, “On Sundays and feast days, the police, the military or volunteers, surround the churches so that we can pray and celebrate Holy Mass without danger. On the roads leading to the villages, terrorists lay explosive mines to prevent us and the military from accessing us. Thus, they can continue to isolate populations that will suffer hunger and need if they do not convert to Islam.”

Belem stated that priests go to confession before leaving their houses for fear they may be killed before returning. “Going to the villages and giving pastoral assistance to the populations is already very dangerous. We have to pray a lot, receive the sacraments, confession, before we go to give pastoral assistance in case we do not return.”

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With the faithful isolated in many areas and thousands of schools and parishes closed because of the persecution, Belem explained the Church has been broadcasting Mass and catechesis via radio in order to reach as many Catholics as possible. “Now, with diocesan radio, we broadcast Mass, we give catechesis and we have programs on religious freedom,” he stated. “Today, in Burkina, there are more than 4,600 schools closed, many parishes closed and more than 1,700,000 internally displaced people.”

In order to safely get past jihadist groups, many women both lay and religious have begun disguising themselves in Muslim dress in order not to be killed, kidnapped or forced into Muslim marriages. Expressing admiration for the courage of such women, who place themselves in danger to administer to sick Christians, the priest declared, “When we see Catholic nurses who entrust themselves to God’s mercy, disguise themselves as Muslims and go to the villages, crossing dangerous zones, passing by terrorists to save lives, to take care of sick people who could not flee, it is encouraging and we say that it is God who saves.”

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Fr. Belem also recounted the story of Fr. Jacques Yaro Zerbo, who was murdered just this year on January 2 while on his way to a village to offer the funeral Mass for a catechist. “He was supposed to go with a parishioner, but at the last minute he decided to go alone. On the way, the terrorists stopped him. Knowing him and knowing that because of his Catholic faith he was not intimidated, they took him a few meters from the village chapel, shot him dead and drove away with his car. The Christians heard the noise, went to see it, and discovered that it was Fr. Jacques Zerbo.”

In addition to martyrdom, priests are faced with abduction, as Fr. Belem related of a parish priest taken captive in 2019, of whom no news has yet come to light. “In March 2019, Fr. Joel Yougbare, parish priest of Djibo in the Diocese of Dori, was kidnapped and we have no news of him to this day,” Belem said. “In May of the same year, parish vicar Simeon Yampa and five other parishioners were murdered during a Sunday Mass. In 2021, another priest, Rodrigues Sanou, and a Spanish missionary priest, Antonio Cesar Fernandez, were also killed. Other parishioners were kidnapped, some were released, some were not.”

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In this year’s report on the persecution of Christians throughout the world, Open Doors has offered details of the Islamic violence toward Christians in Burkina Faso and the groups responsible for the political and religious upheaval the country is undergoing, which include al-Qaeda.

Their report states, “Militant Islamic groups operating in the country include Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Murabitoun, Ansar Dine and Boko Haram. Christians in the country suffer from a lack of security. Many have been targeted and killed in 2021 and 2022. Christian women and girls risk being abducted, raped, and forcibly married. Instances of sexual assault have reportedly increased as extremist groups exploited the insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to expand control. Christian boys on the other hand are often recruited into militant forces, which also serves to weaken the Christian church. In light of such pressure, many Christians are forced to flee their homes altogether.”

Open Doors’ summary and full report on the present persecution of Christians in Burkina Faso can be found here.

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Similarly, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), founded after World War II by Hungarian Norbertine priest Fr. Werenfried van Straaten, has reported that although Burkina Faso “has long been considered an example of peaceful coexistence between religions,” with Christians comprising “about  a quarter of the population” and Muslims at “just over 60% of the 21 million inhabitants,” nonetheless, since 2015, “the northern and eastern parts of the country have become a hotspot of violent extremists.”

ACN stated further that “Burkina Faso is now the main theatre of jihadist terror in the Sahel. In the year under review, the situation deteriorated even further. As a result, more than one million people are on the run, entire towns resemble ghost towns, countless parishes have been deserted and more than 1,000 schools have been closed. Many children are being forcibly recruited as child soldiers by the ‘warrior of God.’ On 4 June 2021, jihadists carried out their worst attack to date near the village of Solhan in the border region between Burkina Faso and Niger. Almost 160 people were killed and numerous houses burned down. The Bishops’ Conference spoke of a ‘night of horror.’”

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Despite the severity of the current persecution, at the end of his address to Catholics in Madrid, Fr. Belem struck a note of hope for the suffering Church in Africa, a hope grounded in the power of the Cross and the love of God.

Extending his deep gratitude for the support of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church In Need and expressing his unwavering hope that “dying for the love of God” will conquer evil, Belem declared, “Thank you to Aid to the Church in Need, which supports projects of resilience, food support, Islamic-Christian dialogue, formation of priests to better serve the People of God persecuted for their faith, and formation of young people, teaching them worthy trades to earn their livelihood.”

“We are convinced that evil will not have the last word. We will continue with hope to fight terrorism with our only ‘Kalashnikov,’ our invisible but very effective weapon: prayer, the reception of the sacraments at Holy Mass and the Rosary.”

“Dying for the love of God and others destroys the roots of the forces of evil,” the priest declared.

“We are a Church persecuted, but not forgotten, thanks to you. We know that they support us with prayer. With God, there is always salvation!”

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