Faith in the face of persecution

They risked their livelihoods to remain faithful. Now they’ve won favor with the chief.

Mennonites in Sidi, Burkina Faso, continue to worship despite nearly a decade of threats against them. — Siaka Traoré/MMN Mennonites in Sidi, Burkina Faso, continue to worship despite nearly a decade of threats against them. — Siaka Traoré/MMN

In 2015, Mennonites in Sidi, Burkina Faso, had to make a choice between being faithful disciples of Jesus and retaining their farming rights.

Land in Sidi belongs to the community and is managed by a group of village leaders, who parcel it out to families for agricultural use. This ensures that everyone has enough land to grow the food necessary to feed their families.

In exchange for cultivating land, village residents are expected to provide a live chicken and four liters of dolo, a locally made millet beer, to the land chiefs, who use these items to make sacrifices to the spirits of the land.

In 1998, Seydou Sanogo became the first Christian resident of Sidi. After an evangelistic campaign in 2011, a Mennonite congregation connected to the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso began to form. Initially, Sanogo and other Christians complied with village leaders’ requests regarding land use. However, during the next four years, the Mennonite community deepened their faith through Bible study, and a sense of unease developed.

In 2015, they discerned that, though they weren’t physically present when the sacrifices were made, they were still indirectly participating in the worship of other gods. They stopped bringing the chickens and dolo to the village leaders.

Yet, to show respect for their community leaders, they proposed an alternative thank-you gift of money and produce from their farms.

The village leaders considered this break with tradition an act of disobedience. Conflict ensued, but the Mennonites remained faithful.

At harvest time, they thought of a way to return good for evil. They offered to help the land chief harvest his cotton crop. This demonstration of love and humility broke through the hostility, and the tension between the Mennonites and the land chief diminished.

Though the intimidation has persisted into the present, the Mennonites of Sidi continue to gather to praise, worship and listening to God. They follow the example of Acts 4:18-20: “[The religious authorities] . . . ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ ”

On Jan. 14, nearly a decade after the initial conflict, my wife, Claire, and I discreetly visited Sidi. We didn’t want to stir up tensions. We found the Mennonites still meeting regularly for worship in the building that the land chief had threatened to destroy.

As we were about to start the journey home, the church members said we couldn’t leave without greeting the village chief. The pastor and two others accompanied us to the chief’s home. He received us warmly and acknowledged that “Protestants” are part of the population of his territorial jurisdiction. He spoke of the violence in Burkina Faso and encouraged each religious group to play its part in restoring peace.

I promised to come back and visit him again. He replied that I would be welcomed.

I share this news to say thank you to all who have prayed for the Christians of Sidi and their neighbors. In 2015, at the beginning of the conflict, the Mennonites of Sidi prayed that those who were persecuting them would become servants of God.

Let’s keep on praying.

Siaka Traoré has retired from national leadership positions with the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso but continues in an advisory position.

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