YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – New reports say at least 48 people died during an attack on a Catholic cathedral in the Central African Republic last weekend.
The death toll from the Nov. 17 attack on Alindao Cathedral had originally been put at 37, which included two priests: Msgr. Blaise Mada, the vicar general for the diocese, and Father Célestin Ngoumbango, the pastor of Kongbo parish.
The bishops in the Central African Republic said they were following the developments with “consternation” and placed the blame for the attacks on militants from the Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, or UPC.
The UPC is composed of former members of the Seleka, a Muslim militia that briefly took over the country in 2013.
The Christian-dominated Anti-Balaka militia then formed to fight the Seleka. French and African peacekeepers were deployed in January 2014 and drove the Seleka forces from the capital, Bangui.
With the government unable to exert authority beyond Bangui, armed groups and militias have taken control of more than 70 percent of the country.
Christians make up about 80 percent of the population of the Central African Republic, and Muslims about 15 percent.
The Muslim population is concentrated in the north of the country that touches on the Sahel region of Africa, although there are many Muslim traders in the south.
Catholic churches have provided refuge to both Muslims and Christians to protect them from the competing militias. The attack in Alindao is reported to have been in retaliation for an attack on Muslims by anti-Balaka forces.
The bishops of the Central African Republic have condemned what they call “successive killing of civilians and priests …We call on the government and MINUSCA [the United Nations peacekeeping force] to coordinate their actions so that the killers and those who order the killings are arrested and taken to court.”
The attack has prompted MINUSCA to send additional troops to the area to forestall further fighting between the competing missions.
The UN mission issued a statement condemning the attack, saying that the Alindao events “again highlight the irresponsibility and contempt of the UPC and the anti-Balaka for civilians, including the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force.”
“We condemn the perpetrators of this violence and remind all belligerents that all those involved in these events, as well as their leaders, are individually and collectively responsible for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”
In a separate attack on a base of the MINUSCA mission on Nov. 16 in Gbambia in the south-west of the country a Tanzanian peace keeper was killed. The attack is suspected to have been conducted by the Siriri armed group.
However, some religious leaders in the CAR said they believe the UN peacekeeping mission had failed in its duty.
“From what I have been told by my contacts, the Blue Helmets of MINUSCA did not defend the population from the rebels who committed the assault in Alindao. At the arrival of the guerrillas they went back to their base, leaving the population to their fate of death and destruction,” Father Amos Boubas told Fides news agency.
Alindao is a stronghold of the UPC, and has been the scene of continual violence.
In May last year, at least 40 people were killed in a similar attack in the area, with close to 3,000 people fleeing. Last August, a humanitarian worker was killed, as well as two UN peacekeepers.
“This vicious cycle of repeated attacks against civilians is unacceptable. Civilians want security, peace and a future,” said Najat Rochdi, UN humanitarian coordinator in the Central African Republic.
Church authorities have called on the government to dispatch the military to secure the area, which now hosts more than 26,000 internally displaced persons fleeing conflict.
Cordaid is dedicated to providing humanitarian relief in conflict-ridden countries and has been working in the Central African Republic.
George Rotts, the program manager for humanitarian aid at Cordaid’s headquarters in The Hague, said the latest attack was “disappointing” but added that “some regions” of the country were becoming more stable and this allowed aid organizations to do their work better.
“This attack shows us that civilians in the CAR are still far from being safe,” he said.
“We need to stay positive,” Rots said. “This is a giant setback, but we cannot abandon the people of the CAR. There is a lot of insecurity in the region of Alindao, but that makes the presence of aid workers all the more necessary. That is where people need our support the most. Providing aid in the CAR is a matter of long-term efforts.”