One of the underreported aspects of the violence in the Sahel is the ongoing targeting of Christians and their churches, which threatens to drive them out of the area for good.
According to an annual report by the Christian charity organization, Open Doors, 27 Islamist groups repeatedly target Christians in the Sahel.
Climate change played a role in how the violence against Christian began in the Sahel: The northern Sahel lands have always been traditionally Islamic and the southern Christian. But as prolonged droughts threatened what meager farmland there was in the north, nomadic Islamic Fulani tribes were forced to move south into Christian lands and began to take over them by force.
But the bigger issue has been Islamic extremists, among them ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram. As these extremist groups have been forced from their bases in the Middle East, they’ve found the poor, failing states of the Sahel to be perfect grounds for establishing enclaves where only their version of Islam is tolerated.
The violence and extremism are now spreading westwards and southwards. In the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an Islamic terror group known as the Islamic Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) has been attacking the mostly Christian population of the region. The ADF has now aligned itself with the Islamic State. Their stated goal is to establish “a caliphate” in the region.
There have been reports by Open Doors that in DRC there been more than 20 attacks, resulting in around 90 deaths. More than 130 people have been kidnapped, and about 12,000 people have been displaced. At least six churches have been burned down and two church-run clinics and health centers have been destroyed.
In Burkina Faso, one of Africa’s poorest countries, ISIS terrorists have been dismantling the long-standing peaceful coexistence of the Christian and Muslim communities. The Islamic State has targeted the leaders of both Christian and Muslim faiths, who have spoken out against them. Those who do not subscribe to ISIS’s extreme ideology are either driven out or killed: During a four-month period in 2019, six different Christian churches were burned, 25 people murdered and thousands forced to flee as ISIS proclaimed the northeastern part of the country a caliphate.
As a result of threats by ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups over 200 churches in northern Burkina Faso have been forced to close their doors. In December a newly built Protestant church was burned by men on motorcycles (one of the preferred methods of transportation by the extremists). The attack left 14 dead. A prayer meeting in Dansi in February was also attacked resulting in 24 more dead Christians.
Boko Haram, on the other hand, has expanded its influence into Cameroon. It terrorizes the local Christian population by targeting Catholic priests and government officials. Hundreds have been killed in Cameroon thus far.
In Diffa, Niger, Boko Haram used a similar terror method. It kidnapped a Christian woman and after three days released her back to the community in order to inform all the Christians to leave the region in three days or be killed.
In June 2019, Fulani Muslim militants attacked the central Mali village of Sobame Da, near Sanga in the Mopti region. They rounded up and killed about a third of the villagers, 95 people in all. All of the dead were Christian. A survivor told the media, “About 50 heavily armed men arrived on motorbikes and pickups. They first surrounded the village and then attacked — anyone who tried to escape was killed. No one was spared — women, children, elderly people.”
The French have created a coalition to fight the extremist groups in the Sahel but they are waging an uphill battle. The governments of Africa and the U.N. have to urgently collaborate in extinguishing the violence in the Sahel before it spreads even farther.