Christians in Burkina Faso under threat from jihadists are not afraid to die for their faith, according to a local Church leader, speaking after the brutal killing of worshippers on Sunday (25th February).

Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya Diocese, north-east Burkina Faso, told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that the massacre of 12 people during a prayer service was just one of many incidents of terrorism that have led to the displacement of more than two million people.

Bishop Kientega underlined that, despite the difficulties and persecution, Christians have defied terrorists’ demands to embrace Islam.

He said: “In this situation, some of the Christians accept to die.

“Many even refused to remove the crosses they wear.

“In some places Christian women were obliged to cover themselves, but they refuse to convert to Islam.

“They always try to find other ways to live their faith, and to pray.”

He added that “faith has grown” as the Church has been forced to adapt to the desperate situation.

The bishop said: “We know that the Pope is close to us, and we feel the presence of the universal Church.

“We get help from ACN, which bring us things that we need.

“But the main thing is to pray that the Lord will touch the hearts of these terrorists. We pray for their conversion every day.”

ACN has supported clergy, religious and seminarians in Burkina Faso with Mass stipends, training fees and vehicles.

The charity has also provided emergency aid – including food – to hundreds of people driven out of their homes by the insurgency.

Bishop Kientega said that he used to be able to travel freely to the border with Mali – but everything changed when the ongoing violent insurgency broke out in 2015, and parts of his diocese are now off-limits because of extremist activity.

He added that jihadist groups want to impose radical Islam on the population, telling them “not to go to school, not to obey public administration” and instructing “the men to grow their beards and the women to wear the Islamic veil.

“Sometimes they take one person and kill him in front of everyone.”

On many occasions, the population was given an ultimatum to leave their villages and not return, according to Bishop Kientega.

He said that Christians – a minority in the region – often face harsher instructions and punishments.

He added: “There is no freedom to worship.

“In some villages they allow people to pray, but forbid [the teaching of the Christian faith] – in other places, they tell the Christians not to gather in the church to pray. This leads many to leave.

“In my diocese, two of the parishes are closed because the priests had to leave, and two others are blockaded – nobody can come in or get out.”

Those who manage to escape are moving to towns and cities where they can count on the protection of the authorities.

Bishop Kientega said: “In all the towns Christians are doing their best to help these people.

“In many parishes they are welcomed – they try to find food for them.”

The bishop highlighted that more than 200 schools have been forced to close – including 30 Catholic schools – which used to be examples of interfaith harmony, with many Muslim families entrusting their children to the care of the Church-run institutions.

He explained that in many cases unemployed youth are lured into terrorist organisations with promises of work – but the details of who is funding and arming these groups is unclear.

The bishop expressed his gratitude to the civil authorities and armed forces for supporting the population and working with the Church to coordinate relief efforts.