In the Central African Republic’s Diocese of Bangassou, several Catholic institutions have taken in displaced Muslims who face violence at the hand of Christian militias.
The CAR has suffered violence since December 2012, when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed an alliance, taking the name Seleka, and seized power.
In reaction to the Seleka’s attacks, some Central Africans formed self-defense groups called anti-balaka. Some of these groups, mainly composed of Christians, began attacking Muslims out of revenge, and the conflict took on a sectarian character.
Anti-balaka killed more than 100 Muslims in Bangassou in May 2017 before United Nations peacekeepers intervened, and since then the city’s Petit Seminaire Saint Louis has been home to about 1,600 displaced Muslims.
Another 2,000 Muslims have taken refuge at St. Peter Claver Cathedral in Bangassou.
While there is “a climate of mistrust” between the communities, “some activities paralysed because of this crisis have resumed,” Bishop Juan-Jose Aguirre Munoz of Bangassou told Al Jazeera.
“For example, the central market is open every day. All political, civil, military and religious leaders are working for the return of peace and social cohesion, living together and returning displaced people to their homes,” he said.
But in the violence of 2017, the homes and businesses of many Muslims in the city were destoyed, and their goods looted.
And if they leave the compounds, Muslims continue to face the threat of violence.
Fr. Yovane Cox, of the Bangassou diocese, said that “There are armed men here waiting for Muslims to emerge out of the camp so that they can kill them. We need to help them as soon as possible to avoid confrontation and bloodbath.”
At the parish in Zemio, about 180 miles east of Bangassou, hundreds more Muslims have taken refuge.
A priest in the town, Fr. Jean-Alain Zembi, said that “They call us traitors. They will kill you if they discover you are protecting Muslims.”
Bishop Aguirre has said his clerics have been attacked, and his own car has been damaged by Christians, for their providing shelter to Muslims.
Last month, a group calling itself the League of Defense of the Church issued a statement saying it would defend the Church and avenge killed priests, charging that both the government and the Church hierarchy have failed to protect Christians.
The country’s bishops responded that “the projects that this league claims to achieve are at odds with the gospel, the aspirations of the church and its mission in the Central African Republic.”
The CAR held a general election in 2015-16 which installed a new government, but militant groups continue to terrorize local populations. Thousands of people have been killed in the violence, and at least a million have been displaced. At least half of Central Africans depend on humanitarian aid, the U.N. reports.
Pope Francis visited the CAR during his trip to Africa in 2015, and urged the country’s leaders to work for peace and reconciliation.
Three priests have keen killed in the CAR this year.