YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – As terrorist attacks continue unabated in Africa’s Sahel region, the Catholic bishops in Niger and Burkina Faso have warned against the situation “degenerating into inter-communal conflicts.”

The arid Sahel region – located at the borderland between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa – has been plagued by attacks from various Islamic groups, including some aligned with Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have been particularly affected.

Meeting in Koupéla in the Kourittenga region to the east of of Burkina Faso from Jan. 13-17, the Episcopal Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger (CEBN) warned that if there is not change, the region could be taken over by terrorists.

“The discussions of the bishops on the lives of their different countries depict a disquieting and concerning security situation and which risks degenerating into inter-communal conflicts if care is not taken,” the bishops said in the meeting’s final communique.

The statement came out just a week after suspected militants on Jan. 9 raided a military camp in Niger’s town of Chinagodrar, on the border with Mali, killing at least 25 soldiers, the latest in a series of deadly attacks on the country’s military.

In Burkina Faso, the country witnessed one of the bloodiest attacks in its history on Christmas Eve, with 35 civilians killed in the town of Arbinda, located to the north of the country.

According to ECOWAS, a regional body for West Africa, more than 2,200 terrorist attacks have taken place across the Sahel in the last four years, resulting in the deaths of 11,500 people. Thousands more have been wounded and millions of others displaced.

The insurgency is also stoking inter-tribal and ethnic tensions in the region, exacerbating the problem.

Targeting Christians

Christians have become prized targets for jihadist militants who have declared they wish to clear the region of non-Muslims, either by forcing them to flee or converting them to Islam.

Burkina Faso is 60 percent Muslim, with Christians making up about a quarter of the population. Mali is around 90 percent Muslim, with Christians making up about 5 percent of the population. Niger is over 99 percent Muslim and just 0.3 percent Christian.

The Bishop of Fada N’Gourma in Burkina Faso has condemned the surge in jihadist attacks in the country, noting the systematic plan to Islamize the Sahel region.

“It is clear that all these groups have a plan: Occupy the entire Sahel region,” Bishop Pierre Claver Malgo said.

He said whenever Christians are attacked, “they are always asked to convert to Islam and abandon their faith, talk less of the profanation and destruction of Christian symbols.”

The United Nations envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, has told the UN Security Council that terrorist attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016. Over 4,000 deaths were recorded in 2019 alone, a steep rise from the 770 recorded in 2016.

Jennifer Overton, Regional Director for West Africa of the Catholic Relief Services told Crux in October that while jihadists are largely to blame for what is happening in the Sahel, other factors are also driving conflict in the region.

“The region has long experienced chronic poverty, governance challenges, porous borders and food insecurity, but extremist groups are becoming more brazen in their attacks on the most vulnerable people. Rising youth unemployment, an increasing number of extreme climate events and limited access to basic services like healthcare are some of the big drivers of the humanitarian disaster currently unfolding in the region,” Overton told Crux.

Jihadist groups are also targeting employees and volunteers from relief organizations, making it hard for them to address the deteriorating humanitarian crisis.

On Wednesday, France announced it would reinforce its 4,500-member military contingent in the Sahel region. These new troops will be in addition to the 220 reinforcements already announced.

France is the former colonial power in the region, and earlier this month French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad to discuss the security situation.

In a joint declaration, they reaffirmed their “determination to fight together against the terrorist groups.”

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