BOBO-DIOULASSO, Burkina Faso — Terrorist attacks have displaced 700,000 people in this West African nation. Many say what they most need is prayer.
“Only God can help us find a solution. It will not come by military force,” a provincial governor told 150 religious and civic leaders who gathered to greet Mennonite World Conference visitors.
Siaka Traoré of Burkina Faso, Jürg Bräker of Switzerland, Jean Paul Pelsy and Didier Bellefleur of France and J. Nelson Kraybill of the United States made the Feb. 17-24 MWC Deacons Commission visit.
Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission seconded Léonard Kiswangi of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the team, and Mennonite Central Committee assisted in logistics.
Since 2016, pastors and churches in Burkina Faso have suffered lethal attacks. Mosques, municipalities, police, schools and other entities of social cohesion have also been hit. About 200,000 children cannot attend school. Starvation threatens because farmers cannot plant or harvest.
Respect for diversity
A spokesman for the president of the Muslim community in Bobo-Dioulasso told the gathering his people seek peace.
“Respect for diversity is at the heart of Islam, and diversity is an expression of the Creator,” he said. “God wants us different, but together.”
He thanked the Mennonites for their support and quoted Isaiah 58: “Is this not the fast that I choose . . . to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?”
In a separate gathering, Mennonite pastors indicated violence has reduced trust across society. Churches must be careful, since spies sometimes pose as seekers.
“In the past, you could organize church events freely,” said Abdias Coulibaly, president of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso. “But now you have to plan security.”
Some congregations only meet in homes.
“You have risked your lives to come and show us support,” Traoré told fellow delegation members. “If a member of the body is suffering, all members suffer with it.”
MWC visitors heard the turmoil is not primarily a Muslim-Christian conflict. Some attacks come from Islamic extremists, but others have criminal motivation related to drugs or human trafficking. High unemployment makes young people susceptible to radical ideology.
In addition to meeting with Mennonite pastors, the delegation met at Ouagadougou with senior staff of the Federation of Churches and Mission of Burkina Faso.
They also had conversations with the Roman Catholic archbishop and the Mogho Naba (emperor) of the Mossi people, who constitute 40 percent of the nation’s population.
Symbols of peace
The emperor received the delegation in his palace, seated under a sculptural tree.
“The leaves of the tree above you bear the words peace, reconciliation, harmony, pardon and love,” a delegation member said. “Christian scriptures say that fruit of God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace. We serve Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and seek the same as you.”
The delegation thanked the emperor for his reconciling work in helping move Burkina Faso to civilian rule in 2015 and assured him of their prayers. The emperor answered in the Mòoré language: “Thank you for coming to this country. This act of love shows that you truly are men of God.”
When the delegation met the archbishop, he quoted an African proverb: “One finger cannot gather flour to make a meal.” Fingers and hands must work together to cook, just as people of diverse religious and cultural traditions must work together.
He noted guns are not manufactured in his country but come from outside.
“We call on the international community to help stop that,” he said.
Delegation members were impressed with the determination of religious and civic leaders to collaborate for peace, the courage of Mennonite leaders and widespread recognition that violence has spiritual roots.
“In [Western] societies, prayer often is symbolic,” said Bräker, “and people just want to go out and do the ‘real thing.’ That’s not where people of Burkina Faso start.”