Muslim communities in the southern region of the Central African Republic have come under attacks from mostly Christian militias.
The Bishop of Bangassou, Spaniard Juan José Aguirre Muñoz, said homes have been torched, people killed, and women raped. Thousands of others have fled the violence.
“Half of the population of Bangassou has fled and sought refuge in the contiguous territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fighting has been going on for days,” the bishop told the Fides News Agency.
Many have sought refuge in Bangassou’s cathedral.
“Two thousand Muslims have taken refuge in the cathedral, guarded by UN peacekeepers from Morocco,” he said. But even there, they are not safe. Aguirre said two of the militants attempted to attack the cathedral on July 24, 2017.
“They were pushed back by [the UN peacekeepers] and one of them was killed,” he said, adding the fighting over the past week had taken on “alarming proportions.”
The bishop said the current round of attacks began on July 21, when the militias – known as Anti-Balakas – kidnapped a young Muslim girl.
Fifteen Islamic extremists responded by kidnapping two Caritas humanitarian workers and their families, around 30 people in all. They were later freed by the United Nations peacekeeping mission, called MINUSCA.
Afterward, the Islamists attacked the cathedral, causing serious damage.
One UN peacekeeper was killed in Bangassou on Sunday, and two more were killed on Tuesday. All three were from Morocco.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Wednesday condemned the killing.
“This incident brings to nine the number of peacekeepers killed in service in Bangassou since the beginning of the year,” said a statement by Guterres’s office.
“If allowed to continue, the prevailing situation risks undermining the hard-won gains achieved towards lasting peace. The Secretary-General calls on all parties to cease violence and to take action to avoid a further deterioration of the fragile security situation in the country,” the statement added.
The rising violence between the Anti-Balakas (composed of mostly Christians and animists), and the predominantly-Muslim Séléka rebels dates to 2013.
That year, President François Bozize – a Christian – was overthrown in a coup led by members of the Séléka.
The leader of the Séléka, Michel Djotodia, then became the first Muslim president of the country.
But Djotodia soon lost control of the rebels who brought him to power, and the Séléka militia committed untold atrocities: Murdering, maiming, and raping large numbers of people, especially those loyal to the deposed president Bozizé.
Former members of the army then joined the Anti-Balakas, which until then had been community-based vigilante squads. With military training and leadership, the Anti-Balakas retook the capital, Bangui, on December 5, 2013.
The seizure of power by Anti-Balaka units represented an important shift in the country’s power dynamics.
They engaged in the same violent reprisals as the Séléka had done when they were in control; but this time targeting communities suspected of being sympathetic to the Séléka, and then extending their murderous campaign to all Muslims.
Pope Francis has taken a personal interest in the country, and ignored objections to visit Bangui on November 29-30, 2015. During his short stop, he visited a refugee camp, and met with local Muslim leaders. The following April, Francis met with the newly elected president Faustin Archange Touadéra – who came to power a few weeks after the pope’s visit to Bangui – at the Vatican.
However, despite the Vatican efforts, peace has not returned to the country.
While some have tried to call this a religion-based conflict, religious leaders have rejected that claim.
“What we have in the Central African Republic is not a religious war,” the Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, told Crux on the sidelines of the 11th Association of Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa in Yaoundé.
“No Christian or Muslim leader leads any of these extremist groups,” he said. “If it were an inter-religious conflict, then you wouldn’t see Christian leaders sheltering Muslims fleeing conflict, and Muslim leaders sheltering Christians.”
The cardinal called it “a political and economic war; people are fighting over land and mineral resources.”
Nzapalainga said he regretted that the Touadera adminstration has not been able to restore order.
“It is only in Bangui that we have the semblance of a state,” he told Crux. “Out of Bangui, there is no state. Rebels are in control.”
Touadera therefore faces a stiff challenge: Standing up to the Anti-Balaka militias that still control parts of the country and where the state has virtually no presence.
This will mean disarming the combatants – both members of the Anti-Balaka and Séléka militias – and reintegrating them into mainstream society.