Gunmen killed a pastor and five congregants at a Roman Catholic church in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday, the authorities said, in the second attack on Christians in two weeks in a nation increasingly overrun by jihadists.
Congregants were leaving the church around 9 a.m. local time in the town of Dablo, about 124 miles from the capital, Ouagadougou, when about 20 men circled them and opened fire, leaving at least six dead, according to a government statement.
“These terrorist groups are now attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us,” the statement said.
The mayor of Dablo said the attackers burned the church, looted a pharmacy and some others stores and left. A government spokesman said the gunmen also destroyed all places serving alcohol.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though violent Islamic extremism has been increasingly destabilizing the country.
The killings come about a month after gunmen fatally shot a pastor and five congregants in April at a Protestant church, also in the north, suggesting the violence was taking a religious turn.
Burkina Faso, in West Africa, has a history of tolerance and religious groups have historically lived together peacefully and intermarried. The violence on Sunday took place not far from the volatile border with Mali. Groups based in the neighboring country seek to extend their influence over the Sahel, the arid scrubland south of the Sahara.
The shooting also occurred days after a raid led by French armed forces rescued four hostages in northern Burkina Faso — including two Frenchmen, an American and a South Korean — as the kidnappers were attempting to take them to Mali, the French authorities said. Two French soldiers died in the overnight raid.
The authorities said that five teachers were shot to death in a separate attack on Friday. Extremists have also targeted foreigners, abducting and killing a Canadian geologist this year.
In December, the government in Burkina Faso declared a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali because of deadly Islamist attacks, including in the region where the assault on Sunday took place.
Armed groups “have every interest in troubling or going against the good understanding between religions,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, which advocates for global peace. “We have observed this strategy in other countries in the region and in the world,” he added.
About 55 percent to 60 percent of Burkina Faso’s population is Muslim, roughly 20 percent to 25 percent is Christian, and the rest follow indigenous religions, according to the State Department of the United States.
Burkina Faso, a landlocked former French colony that was once called Upper Volta, has played a central role in Western efforts to counter Islamist militants in West Africa.
The nation was tossed into political turmoil in 2014, when President Blaise Compaoré was ousted after days of mass protests against his plans to modify the Constitution and remain in power. In the face of revolt on the streets, he fled the country, ending 27 years in power.
Initially, the military took control, with Lt. Col. Isaac Zida proclaiming himself leader of the impoverished country. The move drew broad censure from other African countries and from Western nations.
Under pressure to cede to civilian rule, the military joined an electoral college of 23 mainly civilian representatives, which named Michel Kafando, a former foreign minister and onetime ambassador to the United Nations, as interim president. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré has served as president since 2015.