Tension is high in the Central African Republic capital, Bangui, as protesters clashed with security forces following a deadly attack on a Catholic Church sheltering thousands of refugees.
On May 28, ex-Seleka rebel fighters poured grenades and gunfire into Our Lady of Fatima parish, killing at least 15 people, including a priest. Rev. Paul-Emile Nzale, 76, did not escape the attack in time because of his advanced age.
The Muslim-dominated Seleka rebel coalition disbanded in January after a nearly year-long rampage that killed hundreds of Christians and displaced?thousands. Since January, it has been Muslims on the run in fear of retaliatory violence. The UN has dispatched international peacekeepers to the region, but the Associated Press said Wednesday’s attack was “the most brazen blamed on Muslim fighters” since Seleka’s demise.?
The initial death toll from the May 28 attack was 11, but it has risen since, with many others wounded or kidnapped. According to various sources, the abducted persons – whose number varies between 30 and 40 – were killed and their lifeless bodies found in Bangui’s District 3.
In April, two priests were killed, four others briefly detained and a number of villages were attacked by ex-Seleka fighters.
Wednesday’s attack has sparked angry protests across the capital, crippling many areas due to streets filled with burning tires. Thousands are protesting and demanding the disarmament of ex-Seleka fighters of PK5, a Muslim neighborhood in Bangui. At least three protesters were killed and several wounded Friday in clashes with African peacekeeping forces, while on Thursday, a mosque was ransacked by a group of Christian youths.
According to the Catholic news service Agenzia Fides, the attack on the church was carried out by jihadists from Sudan and Nigeria who have infiltrated the ex-Seleka and now are based in the PK5 district. Some eyewitnesses have noted the presence of ‘people who do not speak Sango,’ the main language of communication in CAR, saying they speak only Lingala, a language widely spoken in neighboring Congo.
”Many Muslims came aboard of two vehicles and others on foot. They threw grenades and fired inside the church,” an Italian priest said to news reporters.
Speaking to World Watch Monitor, the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, said he deplores the lack of security in the volatile area.
”It is truly a tragedy. It is a place of prayer, a place reserved to accommodate those fleeing conflict and war,” he said. “But it is in this place that some people come to give death. My heart is sad to see these unfortunate events that continue to destroy the image of our country and especially to take human lives.”
The archbishop said he “condemn[s] in the strongest terms this way of doing things. To enter a holy place and kill human beings is a sign of disrespect toward God and the church. This is also a mark of disrespect towards humanity.”
CAR President Catherine Samba-Panza has appealed for calm and condemned the attack against the church, which she called a “terrorist act” in a radio and television address.
Three days of mourning, beginning June 2, have been decreed.
Since the violent clashes in December 2013 that led to the resignation of CAR’s President Michel Djotodia, Our Lady of Fatima parish church has provided refuge to more than 7,000 internally displaced people. The May 28 attack has led to an exodus to other parishes across the capital, while others have fled into the bush.
The Fatima church is not alone in helping refugees, since the beginning of the crisis. A parish in Bossangoa, in northwest CAR, has been transformed into a giant camp which hosts more than 40,000 internally displaced persons.
About a quarter of CAR’s population has been displaced by the conflict.