Over 1,000 Muslims have been hiding inside a Roman Catholic Church at a compound in Bangassou, Central African Republic, fearful that a hostile militia will kill them. While some media reports say the militia is mostly made up of Christians, Catholic sources are disputing that claim.
Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need, which has been in contact with the church in Bangassou, told The Christian Post in an email Thursday that numerous media reports that describe the anti-balaka militia group as "Christian" are off the mark.
"To call the anti-balaka a Christian militia, as is often done, is a mistake," said Maria Lozano, communications manager at Aid to the Church in Need International. "Our partners in the field told us several times that there is not much about them that is Christian. They carry fetishes and amulets for protection. The conflict is between Muslims and non-Muslims, the many followers of traditional religions and non-Christian sects."
Lozano told CP that Seleka and Muslim rebels from Sudan and Chad have destroyed and attacked the homes of both Christian and Muslim communities.
"The local non-Muslim people created the anti-balaka militia to defend themselves, and they are full of anger after having to endure long months of assaults and violence," she explained.
Al Jazeera, the Qatari government's state-sponsored news organization, reported Tuesday that some 1,500 Muslims are being sheltered at the Catholic church compound in Bangassou, fearing they'll be killed by armed members of the anti-balaka who've been battling Seleka rebels in a military conflict that has gripped the country since 2012.
Lozano described the crisis in CAR as an "explosion of madness," which has led to arbitrary killings and disabled people being left behind.
"Often the anti-balaka have drunk a lot of alcohol and taken drugs, thus [becoming] unpredictable, which has led to more and more violence," she added, noting that the militia is dangerous for all people.
Recent horror stories include a report Thursday from Doctors Without Borders which found that groups of women have been kidnapped and raped by local armed groups. Survivors of such an attack were taken to Bossangoa hospital last week, where they were being cared for by the charity's staff.
"The women we saw were coping in many different ways but all were incredibly traumatized. Some were in total shock, while others were paralyzed by fear, or found it very hard to speak about the incident," said Soulemane-Amoin, the Doctors Without Borders midwife at Bossangoa hospital.
"A number of the women had fresh knife wounds. It was horrible to witness and my heart goes out to them. Our maternity team treated them with dignity, patience and provided them with a safe and confidential space to start processing what had happened."
The Seleka, meanwhile, have been murdering scores of Christians in door-to-door raids carried out on villages for years.
An ACN report from January on the situation in Bangassou noted that some 2,000 Muslims initially took refuge at the grounds of the Catholic church in May 2017, and around 1,000 continue to shelter there.
"All around this place there are armed men on the prowl, hoping that one of the Muslims will emerge, so that they can kill them," said Father Yovane Cox, a Chilean missionary at the compound.
"Some of the Muslims try to leave the site to go and look for firewood, while others do so in order to scavenge in the houses that have been abandoned around the area (in search of food they need to survive on)," he added.
This had led to Muslims being caught by the anti-balakas, who have murdered them on the spot.
The Chilean missionary said that priests at the Catholic mission are helpless and need assistance if they are to protect the Muslims from the militia.
"By the silence of the state authorities and the inaction of the U.N. forces in not wanting to move the few Muslims still left on this site, they are simply inviting a confrontation between the two groups and a resulting bloodbath," Cox said.
"What we are sounding the alarm about and what we are asking them to do is to please relocate them from this site, because it is the only way of saving those still remaining here, who are for the most part women and children."
As for Christians in the diocese, they are living in fear and in hiding as well. Cox noted that holy mass and other church events only gather handfuls of congregants.
The church has found itself in no man's land in the conflict, with some hardline Muslims accusing it of being complicit with the anti-balakas, while the anti-balakas themselves reportedly see the Christians as traitors for hiding and protecting Muslims.
"There is a mutual incomprehension, a very deep antagonism, and the Church finds herself caught in the middle between them, a perfect target for anybody who has lost control of the situation," Cox said.