DAKER, Burkina Faso — Unidentified gunmen killed a pastor and five congregants at a Roman Catholic church in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday, the authorities said.
Ousmane Zongo, mayor of Dablo, where the attacks took place, told Agence France-Presse that the gunmen had burst into the church at the beginning of Mass. “They started firing as the congregation tried to flee,” he said.
“They burned down the church, then shops and a small restaurant before going to the health center where they searched the premises and set fire to the head nurse’s vehicle,” Mr. Zongo said. “The city is filled with panic,” he added. “People are holed up at home. Shops and stores are closed. It’s practically a ghost town.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though violent Islamic extremism has been increasingly destabilizing the country. A number of jihadist groups are known to operate the area.
The violence took place not far from the volatile border with Mali, according to a government spokesman, Rémi Fulgence Dandjinou. He had no more details about the motive for the attack or the perpetrators.
Burkina Faso, in West Africa, has a history of tolerance and religious groups have historically lived together peacefully and intermarried. But recently it been plagued by a rise in attacks as groups based in neighboring Mali seek to extend their influence over the Sahel, the arid scrubland south of the Sahara.
The shooting came 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.
Burkina Faso 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.