Burkina Faso: Christmas Day in a Christian-Muslim household

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Family photo by the gate to the compoundImage copyright
Clair MacDougall

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Muslim-majority Burkina Faso has been hit by a wave of violence by militant Islamists in recent years. Christmas Eve saw more than 30 people, mostly women, killed in a suspected jihadist attack.

But behind such grim headlines lies a more complex picture. The country has a history of religious tolerance, and it is not uncommon to see families made up of both Muslims and Christians, who make up about 23% of the population.

Journalist Clair MacDougall visited one such family in the capital, Ouagadougou.

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Five-year-old Iris Osnia Ouattara is being raised by her parents in Burkina Faso in both the Catholic tradition of her father, Denis Ouattara, and the Muslim tradition of her mother, Afoussatou Sanou.

She is celebrating Christmas but also celebrates the Islamic festival of Eid.

Girl holding up a picture of her with Father ChristmasImage copyright
Clair MacDougall

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At home in Ouagadougou, one of the photos that is proudly displayed is of Iris meeting Father Christmas when she was a baby. The photograph was taken back in 2015 at an office party at the cement company where Denis works.

While he is passing on a sense of Christian identity to Iris, Afoussatou is teaching her about Islam.

“She accompanies me to the mosque and on Sunday she goes to church with him,” Afoussatou says.

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Clair MacDougall

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Afoussatou prays five times a day at home, but on Fridays she goes to the mosque with Iris.

Her daughter will also often get up with her before sunrise to perform the first prayer of the day.

“Islam is a religion that promotes tolerance and the acceptance of others in their way of seeing things,” she says.

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Clair MacDougall

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Through a simple Islamic primer, Iris learns how to perform ablutions and pray.

Other books in the house include a well-thumbed Christian book of Psalms.

Book with the title Seigneur JesusImage copyright
Clair MacDougall

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Denis and Afoussatou have lived together since meeting six years ago in Toussiana, a rural town 55km (34 miles) from Burkina Faso’s second city, Bobo Dioulasso.

They plan on marrying next year in a ceremony that honours both of their religious traditions.

Denis is open to temporarily converting, which, the couple say, some Christian men do for the Islamic ceremony to appease the bride’s relatives before converting back.

Denis Ouattara and Afoussatou SanouImage copyright
Clair MacDougall

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“When we decided to get married we met some opposition,” says Denis, whose father was initially hesitant.

“In the beginning it was very complicated. My father doesn’t have a problem but my mother does,” says Afoussatou. “If the man is Christian and the woman is Muslim, in general it is the parents of the woman who refuse.”

She is still trying to persuade her mother to approve of the relationship.

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Clair MacDougall

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Many Burkinabé families are a mixture of Christians, Muslims and animists and both Christians and Muslims are often welcomed into each other’s places of worship.

The country has historically been held up as an exemplar of religious tolerance.

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Afoussatou has many Christian friends and while she will not be going to church on Christmas Day she will be celebrating with her partner’s family.

She says she celebrates “all of the holidays: Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, Christmas”.

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Clair MacDougal

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On Christmas Day, the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception will be full of worshippers.

Armed police are expected to be outside this and other churches. Islamist militants have targeted Christians, as well as Muslims, in recent attacks.

In the lead up to Christmas, church leaders have warned congregants to be vigilant, not to carry large bags, to report anything unusual and to respect the security forces.

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Clair MacDougall

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Near the cathedral, people who fancy decorating their homes can buy a plastic Christmas tree dusted in fake snow.

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Clair MacDougall

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On Christmas Day Denis will take Iris to the King Christ Parish of Pissy in Ouagadougou, before the whole family, including Afoussatou, meets at Denis’ uncle’s house.

“My religion teaches me to love and accept other people,” says Denis. “It is only God who can judge.”

Girl praying in churchImage copyright
Clair MacDougall

Iris’ parents will let her decide which religion she wants to follow when she gets older. But for the moment, she can be seen at both the church and the mosque.

Denis and Afoussatou would be happy with whatever choice she makes.

“Love is higher than any religion,” says Denis, who believes all faiths hold a universal truth.

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Key ring that says 'my heartImage copyright
Clair MacDougall

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Words and photographs by Clair MacDougall

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