Persecution of Christians intensifying across the Sahel

Soldiers patrol before the arrival of Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita outside the Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali, November 21, 2015 following an attack by Islamist militants.(Photo: Reuters/Joe Penney)

Christians across the Sahel in northern Africa have been left "shocked" by the speed with which violent extremism has spread across the region.

Homes and livelihoods are being wiped out at the hands of Islamic extremists operating in the region, a "faultline" between the largely Muslim north of the continent and the more Christian south, says Open Doors. 

The charity, which supports persecuted Christians, said that poverty, unemployment, corruption and a "lack of governance" are creating a "toxic mix" that is combining with rising Islamic extremism to cause havoc for Christians. 

Close to 30 violent Islamist groups are active in the area, with some of the extremists having links to international terrorist networks like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Salafi and Wahhabi Islam are also gaining in prominence with the help of missionaries and NGOs funded by countries like Saudi Arabia, the organisation reports.

Members of the Islamic State pushed out of the Middle East are finding a new home in the Sahel region and are infiltrating splinter groups with their ideology.  

One such group is the Islamic State West Africa Province, an offshoot of terrorist organisation Boko Haram, which has enslaved Christian women and girls. 

In addition to Christians, these extremist groups are targeting Muslims who adhere to moderate Islam. 

"The poverty, lack of employment opportunities and corruption makes many susceptible to the message of radical Islam, which promises a new political order free from corruption," Open Doors said.

"This is especially true when the message is accompanied by the provision of goods and services which the state has failed to provide." 

Christians across Niger, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso are being targeted for their faith, Open Doors warns. 

In Niger, Christians were advised to leave the Diffa region after Boko Haram kidnapped a Christian woman last month and released her with a warning to believers in the area that they would be killed if they did not leave within three days. 

In Mali, witnesses report that over a hundred Christians were killed by gunmen in the village of Sobane Da in the country's central region. 

Christians in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are being targeted by the Islamic Allied Democratic Forces, which has stated its aim to create a caliphate.

At least 90 people have been killed in over 20 attacks in the DRC, while another 131 people have reportedly been kidnapped and 12,000 people displaced as a result of the violence. Six churches have been burned down and two church-run clinics have been destroyed. 

Open Doors said its relief efforts in the country have been hampered by the deadly Ebola outbreak.

Open Doors' team leader in the DRC, who cannot be named for security reasons, said, "We need to pray more than before because the situation is drastically declining. Pray for God to relieve the suffering of the people in this part of the country."

In Burkina Faso, years of peaceful coexistence between religious and ethnic groups are being threatened by the increased activity of extremist groups. 

Groups pledging allegiance to IS have declared their goal to establish a caliphate and are targeting churches and Christians, with at least 27 killed in the last four months. 

Over 200 churches in the north have closed their doors and an unknown number of pastors and their families have been kidnapped and remain in captivity, Open Doors said.

Over 5,000 pastors and church members have now sought refuge in camps for Internally Displaced People or with family and friends living in the south or central regions. 

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland said: "The situation for Christians in the Sahel is precarious; this is a critical time for the future of Christianity in the region. If the militant groups have their way, Christians and Muslims who do not subscribe to their ideology will be killed and driven out of the entire region."