Catholic leaders in Mali warned that parishes face increasing assaults by Islamic militants despite attempts to enforce a peace deal in the North African country.
“Our churches and chapels are now being targeted by extremists, who’ve told Christians not to gather to pray,” said Msgr Edmond Dembele, Secretary General of the Malian bishops’ conference.
Tensions were running high in September and early October in Mali’s central Mopti region after several Catholic churches were ransacked and torched, forcing parishioners to flee.
Msgr Dembele said it was unclear which groups were involved and what their motives were.
“We have no security programme of our own and we rely on the authorities to provide protection and find solutions,” Msgr Dembele said.
“On previous occasions, the government has deployed military units in our parishes. But this still hasn’t been done against these new attacks.”
The attacks occurred as the Malian government is attempting to implement a 2015 peace deal with rebel fighters.
The peace deal with the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, rebel fighters are to be integrated into the national army.
However, attacks by Touareg separatists and Islamist insurgents have continued, delaying the return of displaced Malians from neighbouring Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Human rights groups have reported summary executions and the destruction of schools and forced recruitment of child soldiers.
Msgr Dembele said armed men had smashed their way into a church at Dobara, 500 miles north of the capital Bamako late in September, throwing out crosses, altar furnishings and a statue of Mary, which they burned outside. Assailants also drove Catholics out of a church at Bodwal, warning they would be killed if “seen praying in the church,” he said.
Local parishioners were currently “very afraid but not panicking,” the priest said, as they “urgently awaited” help from government and UN forces seeking to restore order.