Armed attackers killed five worshippers and a pastor in the first attack by armed groups on a church in Burkina Faso, security and local sources said on Monday.
The attack took place on Sunday in the small northern town of Silgadji near Djibo, the capital of Soum province, and two others were reported missing.
“Unidentified armed individuals have attacked the Protestant church in Silgadji,” a security source said on condition of anonymity.
Government spokesman Remy Fulgance Dandjinou said it was the first attack on a church since sectarian violence erupted in the West African nation. Muslim leaders and imams have also come under attack.
Burkina Faso, which boasts of a history of religious tolerance, has been beset by a rise in attacks as groups based in neighbouring Mali seek to extend their influence over the Sahel, the arid scrubland south of the Sahara.
About 60 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, roughly 25 percent is Christian, and the rest follow indigenous religions.
“Armed groups … have every interest in troubling or going against the good understanding between religions. We have observed this strategy in other countries in the region and in the world,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa Project Director at International Crisis Group.
“The attack happened around 1pm (13:00 GMT) just as the faithful were leaving the church at the end of the service,” said a member of the church, who did not want to be identified.
“The attackers were on motorbikes. They fired in the air before aiming at the members of the congregation.”
Deadly attacks have been attributed to a number of groups, including Ansarul Islam, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), and those with links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
The attacks started in the north of the country before targeting the capital, Ouagadougou, and other regions, notably the east of the country.
Intercommunal violence and attacks by armed groups have forced tens of thousands from their homes in the past few months.
The United Nations says Burkina Faso is facing a full-blown humanitarian crisis with almost one million people in need of urgent help.
In February, a Spanish priest, Father Cesar Fernandez, was killed in a raid attributed to armed groups in Nohao in the centre of the country.
In January, a Canadian national was killed after being abducted from a gold mine.