World News

Central African Republic: An ill wind

United front (CNS)

A church massacre has pushed a troubled country closer to the brink

The bad old days have returned to Bangui. The capital of the Central African Republic was, until recently, a place of relative safety in a country largely controlled by armed gangs. Pope Francis made a two-day visit there, celebrating Mass and visiting a Muslim area known as PK5.

That was in late 2015. At the time there was a sense of hope. Young Muslims, former members of the Seleka militia, joined the papal Mass wearing T-shirts with Francis’s face on them, chanting: “It’s over” (meaning the conflict had ended). A few months later, a president was elected, and Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga hailed a “wind of change” blowing through the nation.

Now, the PK5 neighbourhood is once again a place of violent conflict. On May 1 a gang from the area threw grenades and sprayed gunfire at Mass-goers at the city’s Our Lady of Fatima Church, killing at least 19 people, including a priest. In the reprisals that followed, two more were killed and a mosque burned down.

Many fear more deaths are to come. Kessy Ekomo-Soignet, a youth worker, told the New York Times that calls for revenge were circulating on Facebook.

For the people of Bangui, this is familiar territory. A coup by the mainly Muslim Seleka in 2013 led to widespread atrocities. This escalated into a civil war after various armed groups, largely Christian and animist, began carrying out revenge attacks. Muslims fled Bangui, and the PK5 neighbourhood became a ghost town. That war ended in 2014 after the intervention of French and later UN peacekeepers. But the militias were never disarmed and the government controlled little outside Bangui.

Last year large-scale violence erupted in the towns of Zemio, Paoua and Bangassou. In February the bishops’ conference said it seemed as if the country was continuing to “sink into the abyss”.

Church leaders insist that it is not a “confessional conflict”, but a power struggle between militia groups. As Cardinal Nzapalainga said last week: “No imam has appeared at the front with arms, and no priest has held a weapon, so how can this be confessional?” Indeed, the Church has played a major role in sheltering civilians, and Cardinal Nzapalainga has walked through warring communities alongside an imam, Omar Kobine Layama, in a show of unity. Last month the pair (pictured) spent five days overseeing peace talks at Bossangoa – 900 youths handed over their weapons.

Cardinal Nzapalainga has said that, after the latest attack, Christians are in mourning. The priest, Mgr Albert Toungoumale-Baba, “fell at the moment of his service, with his rosary”. The cardinal has called for justice to be done and for “true heroes” to choose forgiveness instead of violence.

The massacre was triggered, according to the UN, when security forces arrested an alleged criminal leader and former Seleka member in the PK5 area. The legacy of the old conflict hangs heavily over Bangui.