- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The killings of at least 30 people Wednesday by Muslim rebels who stormed a Catholic church in the Central African Republic marked the latest escalation of religious violence gripping the conflict-torn nation.

The attack on the compound at the Church of Fatima, where hundreds of civilians sought refuge from clashes in the streets of the capital city of Bangui, was the largest blamed on Muslim fighters in the nation since their Seleka rebel coalition was ousted from power nearly five months ago.

The Central African Republic, which borders Congo, Cameroon and South Sudan, has been beset by decades of rebellions.

But the latest conflict, pitting the nation’s minority Muslims against its majority Christians, has become increasingly sectarian since members of the Seleka rebel coalition looted, raped and killed Christians upon seizing control of Bangui last year.

Muslim civilians then became targets of attacks by armed Christians, who wrested control of the capital from the Seleka coalition.

Some observers said the attack Wednesday was an indication that the religious conflict has devolved into a full-blown civil war.

The Associated Press said attacks on houses of worship are rare in Bangui, where Catholic churches have served as sanctuaries for Christian and Muslim civilians over the past year.

Fears escalated Wednesday that the attack would spark Christian reprisals.

The majority of Bangui’s Muslims fled the city earlier this year, and the United Nations described the exodus as ethnic cleansing.

However, amid news that Christian militia fighters were putting up road blockades around Bangui, Cameron Thomas, the regional manager for Africa at International Christian Concern, suggested this is not likely the end of Muslim-on-Christian violence in the Central African Republic.

“There is violence being perpetrated specifically toward Christians, for the fact they are Christian,” Mr. Thomas said. “Someone needs to speak out, ensure these two competing forces come to a resolution for the sake of innocents.”

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, visited the Central African Republic in early April on a State Department mission. On his return, he told The Washington Times that the country’s problems could be tied to the Arab Spring.

After the 2011 overthrow and death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, throngs of displaced people, many of them Muslim militants, began crossing the borders of nations throughout Africa’s northern and central regions including the Central African Republic, Cardinal McCarrick said.

“People came in to the CAR from outside and began to persecute Christians,” he said.

The violence came to a head in March when Christians responded to persecution by attacking Muslims. Christians formed security groups called anti-balaka, which killed members of the Muslim community and drove about 20 percent of the population out of the republic.

“It was based on vengeance. So often that’s the problem,” Cardinal McCarrick said. “Many people are trying to make life impossible for Muslims.”

Violence has forced nearly 1 million people from their homes within a year. At one point, nearly 100,000 sought shelter on the grounds of the Bangui airport, which has been guarded by French and now other European peacekeepers.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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