YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga is calling for justice after one of his priests was murdered on Tuesday in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Father Albert Toungoumale-Baba was killed along with several other people when unidentified gunmen attacked the Notre Dame de Fatima church. The death toll as of Thursday stood at 26, after ten more people died from wounds sustained during the assault.
The priest was celebrating Mass when the assailants struck with gunfire and grenades, forcing Mass attendees to flee through a hole in the wall created by the police.
Father Moses Aliou, a priest from the parish, told Reuters people were “filled with panic” and began to flee, but the hail of gunfire was “trapping those who remained in the compound.”
The attack took place on the edge of Bangui’s majority-Muslim PK5 neighborhood and is reminiscent of a similar attack last month when 21 people were killed during clashes between security forces and criminal gangs. The Notre Dame de Fatima church was previously attacked by gunmen in 2014.
Toungoumale-Baba had been a fervent supporter of interfaith relations and had good relations with the local Muslim community.
The mainly-Muslim PK5 district has been a flash point in a country weakened by sectarian violence and militia rule. As the parish was attacked, assailants also attacked mosques and health facilities in the capital.
Nzapalainga has called on the Central African Republic government and the UN Peace keeping force in the country, known by the acronym MINUSCA, to give justice to the victims.
“I call on the government and MINUSCA to shine a light on the circumstances of the killings,” the cardinal said on May 2.
“That means the truth must be established and that justice be done to the Central African people. That is why I vehemently condemn what happened at the Notre Dame de Fatima parish,” he said.
The recent attack adds to a litany of other “abominable acts” in Central Africa, leading the cardinal to openly question the direction in which the country is headed.
“What have we done with this country in decades?” Nzapalainga asked.
“Coup d’état’s; mutinies, and repeated rebellions. The results are here for us to see. We have deaths, scenes of pillage, destruction. Behind these events, I ask myself many questions: is there manipulation? Are people instrumentalized? Is there a plan to divide the country? Is there a hidden agenda?”
The president of the Islamic community in Bangui, Imam Kobine Layama, asked similar questions.
“It is unacceptable that hidden agendas should engender the failure of every effort made to enhance peace, social cohesion and living together in our country,” he said.
President Faustin Touadera has promised justice, and on Wednesday declared three days of mourning in the country.
MINUSCA says it has stepped up security in the PK5 area, but that has not been enough to stop militia groups from ramming through road blocks and further escalating the violence.
Thousands of people took to the streets to protest the killing of Toungoumale-Baba. Carrying the body of the priest, the crowd was headed for the Palais de la Renaissance – the country’s presidential palace – hoping to see the president.
However, armed police fired live ammunition at the protestors, dispersing the crowd.
Touadera met with Nzapalainga to offer his condolences after the attack, and said, “When we move forward towards peace, there are always the enemies of peace out to achieve their Machiavellian ambitions and who continue to sow death and desolation within the population.”
The cardinal reminded Christians and Muslims in the country that they “are a people.”
“We must work together in love, hand in hand, in order to construct the Central African Republic,” Nzapalainga said.
The country has experienced instability since 2013, when Seleka, a Muslim-majority militia movement, overthrew the government. 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 a newly elected government unable to move beyond Bangui, armed groups and militias have taken control of more than 70 percent of the country.
The United Nations says the conflict has left at least 1.1 million people destitute and homeless, with about 2.5 million people – more than half of CAR’s four million inhabitants – now in need of humanitarian assistance.
Pope Francis visited Bangui in 2015 and met with Muslim leaders, emphasizing the need for inter-religious peace and dialogue.
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.
The southern city of Bangassou has become a flashpoint in the conflict. The Catholic cathedral in the city has become home to some 2,000 Muslims who live under the protection of the Catholic bishop, Spaniard Juan José Aguirre Muñoz.