“The peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid,” reverend father Ekpaa Maalo quotes from the gospel of John as he delivers the homily at an open air Sunday mass.
That passage has perhaps never been more important for the attentive congregation at Our Lady Queen of Africa parish (OLA) in Bolgatanga in Ghana’s Upper East region.
Ghana is in a state of alert because this staunchly religious country is grappling with a question it has never had to contemplate: how will it keep its places of worship safe—particularly churches? The security concerns have been precipitated by terror attacks in northern neighbor Burkina Faso where extremists have attacked churches.
The latest attack occurred on May 26 with four worshippers being killed. Since April, 18 worshippers and two priests have been killed in four separate attacks in Burkina Faso. Since 2015, nearly 400 people have been killed—according to a tally by the AFP news agency. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks on churches, the finger is being pointed at Sahelian militants aligned to global terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
Up to 71% of Ghanaians [pdf p.84] are Christians and there is no escaping religion’s influence on daily life. The country has long prided itself with its robust democracy, stability and inter-religious harmony. On the rare occasion of tensions, there have been genuine efforts to resolve them by religious leaders.
In Ghana’s northernmost towns, the attacks in Burkina Faso hit close to home because of familial and ethnic ties that crisscross the borders drawn 130 years ago by European colonialists. For locals here, the border is just a line on a map.
“They killed a priest during mass and [five] people and that was something that was very very scary”, says reverend father George Omondi, the outgoing priest of OLA parish, referencing the attack on May 12 which occurred in Dablo in northern Burkina Faso.
Ghana, just like Côte d’Ivoire, has intensified patrols on its northern border and earlier this month, security officials met the Christian Council of Ghana to deliberate on how to avert terrorist attacks. Insurgents from northern Burkina Faso have been pushing south towards Ghana, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin and Togo. Last week, two Ghanaian truck drivers were reported killed by terrorists near the Burkina Faso-Mali border.
Before that, some churches are taking measures into their own hands including proposals to install body scanners at entrances. Following an alert from the local bishop, the OLA parish is starting with a vigilance strategy to spot suspicious behaviour.
“As Ghanaians, we are not very security conscious, maybe because we have lived so peacefully…First of all, it’s about conscientizing people,” said Samuel Agyegelone, chairman of OLA’s laity council.
Agyegelone is leading the charge to set up a core group made up of members of the church who belong to Ghana’s security agencies to help train ushers and youth of the parish on what constitutes suspicious behavior and what to do next if they spot one. However, implementing overly stringent security measures also changes the nature of the relationship between church and laity, which is premised on openness to all.
“The mission is for the people [and] it must be accessible to any man who wants to come and see me,” says monsignor Roger Aboteyuure of the Navrongo-Bolgatanga diocese.
“Jesus said the thief will come when you least expect. That means I have to be careful but I can’t lock myself up; then [I’m] no longer serving the purpose. Jesus didn’t lock himself up because he had enemies, it is a part of life,” he adds.
The public performance of inter-religious harmony has worked so far for Ghana but it is perhaps only a matter of time before the ‘thief’ strikes in these uncertain times.
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