Rafael D’Aquí, the project section head with responsibility for Burkina Faso in the international Catholic pastoral charity ACN International, recently visited this African country to study the needs of the local Catholic Church. In the interview below with Maria Lozano he explains the situation of the country following the terrorist attack on 13 August in which 17 people were killed. For now, despite the growing Islamic influence of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, the relationship between Muslims and Christians in the country is still a peaceful one.
Mr D’Aqui, you returned just a few weeks ago from Burkina Faso, where you visited various projects sponsored by ACN. On the evening of Sunday 13 August 17 people were killed in an attack on a restaurant in the capital Ouagadougou. Do we know yet who was behind the attack, and have ACN’s project partners in the country commented on it?
It is tragic to see the country assailed yet again by the catastrophe of terrorism, a plague that is so difficult to eradicate. So far we do not have any news of a specific group that has claimed responsibility for the attack. The president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Paul Ouedraogo has made an official statement deploring the attack and stating that “no creed can justify violence, and still less invoke its faith in order to perpetrate it.” The bishops have called for prayers for national unity and for the work of peace.
For although there have been few incidents of Islamist violence hitherto, this is not the first time that the country has been targeted by jihadists, only last year – on 16 January 2016 – 30 people were killed in an Islamist terrorist attack on a restaurant and hotel, again in the capital Ouagadougou. Were you yourself concerned when you visited the country?
I had earlier been to the country in 2008 and I had noticed the increase in security measures, especially for people travelling. The terrorist attack of 2016, which was attributed to the terrorist organisation Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was intended above all as an attack on foreigners – the hotel and restaurant that were targeted were known for their international clientele. This time too it is thought that the terrorists last Monday were trying to gain international attention, since many of those killed were again foreigners… During our recent visit there, we were also in some high-risk areas such as Djibasso and Dori, on the frontier with Mali and Niger; there were many roadside checks there. I can imagine that they will be increasing security still more, though they know that in the end the terrorists could be your neighbour or some other individual living next door to you, who has been silently radicalised. It is a very sad fact. People have to come together against radicalisation. Nonetheless, I do not believe that these terrible events have changed the good relations between local Christians and Muslims. The general reaction of local Muslims to these acts of violence is a rejection of radicalism.
How has the Christian community reacted? Has the situation perhaps changed after all, following this latest attack?
I was impressed by the words of Auxiliary Bishop Leopold Ouedraogo of Ouagadougou who spoke on Tuesday 15th August – two days after the attack – during the celebration of the Assumption in Yagma, the largest Marian shrine in the country. Thousands of people had gathered there to celebrate their faith, following the tragic attack. Bishop Leopold expressed his joy at seeing that so many people were not afraid of “those who can kill the body, but who cannot kill the soul” and he declared, “Some people might think that the most recent events of 13 August might have discouraged us, but we are here because ‘if the Lord does not build up the house, in vain do the builders labour’. And if the Lord is with us, we need fear nothing. To the families of the victims we send a message of compassion and sympathy. We suffer with them and hope that through our prayers the Lord, who is a just Judge, will take them into his eternal Kingdom, because they have not deserved this.”
Burkina Faso is a country largely unknown to many Europeans and Americans. How would you describe the country generally?
I have to say that Burkina Faso is a country whose people are very peaceable, hard-working and very welcoming. Although at the same time it is a country of West Africa struggling against enormous challenges – poverty, lack of water and lack of infrastructure among the most visible ones. Looking at the UN statistics, it is one of the poorest countries in the world with an extremely low index of human development, which translates into low life expectancy and a low level of formal schooling.
62% of Burkina’s inhabitants are Muslims. You mentioned that there is generally a spirit of peaceful coexistence. However, you also spoke of the danger of radicalisation. Are there traces of Islamic radicalisation to be seen in the country, and is there a difference between the North and the West?
I would say that, rather than radicalisation, what is actually taking place is a slow process of Arabisation (which is a general tendency) among the younger generation. There are many opportunities offered by the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, above all to poor countries like Burkina, notably in the form of study or working scholarships. In a country in which approx. 60% of the population is Muslim, the influence of the Islamic countries is considerable. There are NGOs here from Qatar, Kuwait and other countries of the region which aim, as I have heard, to advance social development, but which together with their social help are exporting their own ideology and their own interpretation of the Koran. They are prepared to bore wells, build mosques and help the poor, but they focus their aid exclusively on Muslims. In the western part of Burkina there are more Christians, but in the North they are no more than around 1% of the population – although very much present in the field of healthcare and education, thanks to the various religious congregations which are working here, providing a service – for the whole of society, moreover – and not merely for the Christians.
In 2014 and 2015 the political and social life of Burkina Faso was marked by profound political turmoil. There were great tensions, following the overthrow of President Blaise Compaoré, who had ruled the country for 27 years, and leading up to the election of the new President Kaboré. Has the situation in the country finally stabilised?
At the very end of 2015 President Kaboré took up office, following a time of great turmoil. It is true that there are still many expectations on the part of the people, who went out onto the streets to demand changes in national policy – changes which are still unfulfilled – but for the moment we are no longer seeing demonstrations in the streets. I hope that democracy will put down roots in the life of the country, and in this respect I believe that Christians can make a positive contribution, based on the social teaching of the Church, which would be of great benefit to everyone. Of course we have to take account of the fact that the recent terrorist attack is likewise a destabilising factor for the political and economic life of the country.
In the country as a whole some 23% are Christians, and 19% are Catholics. How is the Catholic Church viewed in the country?
As I mentioned in passing, the Church is doing incredible work and it is quite obvious that it is on behalf of all the people. I have seen for myself how in the health centres they are caring for people of different faiths who are looking for a better quality of care and a more “human” attitude – something that many of the state healthcare centres cannot offer. But equally in the field of education the presence of the Church in many places is very important. Even in the north, where Catholics represent no more than 1%, the Church maintains important educational centres for young children, with a special care for the poorest and for girls.
Why for the girls?
Sadly, in this country there is still the practice of marrying girls at a very young age and of violence against women. Tackling this problem is a matter of education. For this reason in many places the Church is endeavouring to protect young girls by offering them the opportunity of studying in a boarding school situation. The Catholic Church in Burkina Faso is striving to draw the attention of society to the condition of women.
But in the north of the country Muslims make up almost a total majority. How was your encounter with the Catholic minority there in the north? What impressed you most about it?
The meetings we had with people in the diocese of Dori – on the frontier between Mali and Niger – were marvellous. What joy and faith in the middle of the desert! After the Sunday Mass in the cathedral we all danced – bishops and faithful alike – to thank God for the priestly vocations, which are on the rise. This is an area where we have been supporting them for years, in this new diocese where Catholics are a minority. What joy to know that this year they had four priestly ordinations! How active the faithful are! The Catholic population is very much dispersed throughout the territory and very often somewhat isolated from the rest of the country, but they have a powerful spirit of service and a desire to be of help to all society. The bishop is the president of the Union of Believers, an organisation which includes Muslims, animists and Christians and which seeks to carry out interfaith social development projects.
What was the most beautiful moment of the visit for you personally?
I experienced many powerfully emotional moments, but to name just one, in the diocese of Tenkodogo I was impressed to see the impact of the building of small chapels in the villages. We visited two communities where ACN has helped for the construction of their small village churches. It was beautiful. In the first one we attended Mass at 6 a.m. and there were nevertheless around 200 people there – of all ages. We witnessed the baptism of little Juliette, a baby six weeks old. In the other village we watched as around a hundred people were working in the field next to the church, which is still under construction. I asked the bishop what all those people were doing and he told me, “That is the catechist’s field; the people love their catechist so much that they are getting together to prepare his field for sowing.” They were digging the ground with spades and working away, singing with great joy. Afterwards, the village chief also came; although he is not a Catholic, he goes every day to see how work is going on the construction of the church, because “when the Church comes here, then development also comes for the people”. In both communities, before they got their little chapels, the people had to walk many miles on foot in order to take part in Holy Mass
What is ACN’s work in Burkina Faso? How are you supporting the Catholic Church in the country?
We in ACN share four great areas of concern with the Church in Burkina Faso – the family apostolate, the formation of formators, the life of prayer and contemplation and the support of the religious congregations. Let me explain: the family apostolate because, in a poor country like this one, what so many international organisations are attempting to do is to impose their own agenda, which is contrary to the culture of life. For us it is important to form families according to the mind of the Gospel – open to life, responsible for the education of their children and an environment where young people can learn the true meaning and context of sexuality.
At the same time the presence of the priests and religious among the people is a precious treasure, and for this reason we endeavour to help them to acquire a solid formation, so that they can carry out their ministry well. At the same time we cannot forget that in the midst of so much poverty it is also necessary to create spaces of prayer, or simply of spiritual repose, where the people and the missionaries can be given an opportunity to “recharge their spiritual batteries” for their day-to-day duties.
I must also add that we have met with great gratitude wherever we been – gratitude I want to pass on to all our benefactors. One rather touching incident was when the communities in Tenkodogo diocese made us a gift of ten chickens, as a way of saying ‘thank you’ to our benefactors. Sadly, I wasn’t able to bring them on the aeroplane, so that I don’t have them with me here in the office!