YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A priest sat down for dinner with a group of other clergymen, and then was shot in the abdomen, later dying of his wounds.
June 29th was just another day in the life of the Church in the Central African Republic. Monsignor Firmin Gbagoua, Vicar General of Bambari Diocese, was the third priest to be murdered in the country this year.
The bishops’ conference immediately issued a letter expressing their “bitterness” over the continued attacks on the clergy.
“This odious assassination reminds us of Father Joseph Désiré Angbabata who was killed last March at his Seko Parish, along with some of his parishioners,” the letter said.
The bishops also challenged the government and the United Nations to do more to keep the country safe.
“We call on the government and the MINUSCA [the UN peacekeeping mission] to coordinate their actions so that the authors of the assassinations can be arrested and brought to justice,” their letter read.
They also called on the Christian community to “stay calm and pray against falling into the trap of those who want to demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can’t live together anymore in their effort to partition the country.”
They then asked the rhetorical question: “Who benefits from these attacks against the Catholic Church?”
“These criminals who continue to kill, we know who they are,” said Father Mathieu Bondobo, the rector of Our Lady of Immaculate Cathedral in Bangui, in an interview with Vatican Radio.
He said anyone fighting for peace and reconciliation in the Central African Republic becomes a target for assassination but emphasized that the Church will not be cowed into submission.
“The Vicar General of Bambari was a man of peace, a man who spent his life working only for cohesion, who spread the Good News about reconciliation – he has been cold-bloodedly murdered by the enemies of peace,” Bondobo said.
“We are sad, but that won’t keep us from denouncing the wrong-doing in this country; from denouncing those fomenting trouble and those who don’t want to arrest the authors of these crimes,” the priest continued.
Religious and ethnic conflicts have haunted the Central African nation for years, peaking in 2012 when a predominantly Muslim group known as the Séléka began an insurgency against the presidency of François Bozize, a Christian.
(The majority of the population – 85 percent – is Christian, and the rest are Muslim. The Muslim population is concentrated in the north, although there are many Muslim traders in the cities of the south.)
A peace agreement to end the crisis was short-lived, and the militant group took control of the capital, Bangui, ousting Bozize.
Michel Djotodia was then installed as the country’s first Muslim president, but he failed to bring order to the group that propelled him to power. Séléka was accused of summary executions, rape, sexual abuse, enforced disappearances, illegal detention and torture of the mostly Christian population.
In the face of the mounting atrocities, a primarily-dominated Christian militia group was formed in June 2013, known as the anti-Balaka.
The two sides became involved in what observers quickly classified as an inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflict.
On December 5, 2013, the anti-balaka attacked Muslim neighborhoods in Bangui.
The attacks led to the displacement of 99 percent of the Muslim population of Bangui. Since that time, 80 percent of the country’s Muslim population has left the country and sought refuge in neighboring Cameroon and Chad. In addition, reports indicate that out of the country’s 436 mosques, 417 have been destroyed.
The same weekend Gbagoua was gunned down, there were reports of fighting between ex-Séléka groups and Anti-balaka militias in the northern Kaga-Bandoro region in which a number of houses were burned to the ground.
The country’s religious authorities have refused to see the conflict as religiously-based. They claim there are external forces using religion to divide the country.
The country’s bishops have emphasized the need to “correct the confusion propagated by some national and foreign media giving the impression that the conflict has to do with religion, whereas it is above all else, a political and military conflict.”
“What we have in the Central African Republic is not a religious war,” the Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, told Crux last year.
“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.”
It is a position shared by the Imam of Bangui. In an exclusive interview with the local news site, atlasinfo.fr, Omar Kobine Layama recalls that religious leaders – Muslim and Christian – had long rejected the notion of an inter-religious conflict in the CAR.
“This war isn’t an inter-religious war,” he said.
“It is a war for power. Religion is only used as an alibi and we denounce this instrumentalization of religion. No Muslim or Christian leader has called on Central Africans to take up arms against Muslims or Christians. For us, it is a political conflict even if our churches and mosques have been defiled.”
Nzapalainga pointed out that he had always gone on peace campaigns together with the imam to drive home the message that “both religions are grounded in love, and it’s out of the question that Christians and Muslims take up arms against each other.”
Even as the violence continues to escalate, Bondobo is still hopeful about the future.
“Time will come when all of this will end. That is our faith,” he said.