“If there is no one to hold back the hand of the devil here, he will achieve his goal. Many people will be hunted down and killed,” Archbishop Dieudonnè Nzapalainga of Bangui told Aid to the Church in Need Feb. 12.
He said he had visited a town called Bodango, about 125 miles from the capital of Bangui, where all of the Muslims – who are among those targeted in the conflict – have disappeared. Members of the Anti-Balaka militia told him the Muslims had been driven out, but the archbishop was skeptical, fearing instead that they had all been killed.
“That over 200 Muslims, along with all their children and old people could have walked 125 miles is impossible,” the archbishop said.
Violence broke out in the Central African Republic in December 2012. Seleka rebels, loosely organized groups that drew many Muslim fighters from other countries, ousted the president and installed their own leader in a March 2013 coup.
After international pressure and resistance from Anti-Balaka self-defense groups, that president stepped down in January 2014. Soon after, a national council elected as interim president Catherine Samba Panza, who has no ties to either group.
The Anti-Balaka militias now claim to be taking revenge for Muslim atrocities committed last year, though President Samba Panza has pledged to hunt them down.
Amnesty International has said militia attacks have caused a “Muslim exodus of historic proportions.” Tens of thousands have fled into Cameroon and Chad and many more are internally displaced. Their flight could add to the food crisis, as many shops and wholesalers were run by Muslims, the BBC reports.
Seleka rebels have also attacked the Christian population in the small town of Bohong, about 10 miles from the western town of Bouar.
“When I arrived there, part of one area of the town has been completely burned down. I also saw that people had been burnt alive. I saw human bones and human heads,” the archbishop said. “I had only ever seen that sort of thing in films about Rwanda before, but never here with us.
“I think that evil was there. Now the evil has touched us. It shows itself in the desire to kill, to destroy. This is the devil.”
There are presently 1.25 million people in need of food assistance.
While media sources have described the Anti-Balaka forces as a “Christian militia,” Archbishop Nzapalainga rejected this. He said that they are rather a “self-defense movement that has now left the politicians behind.”
Other bishops have rejected depictions of the fighting as divided solely along religious lines, noting that not all Anti-Balaka forces are Christians and not all Christians are Anti-Balaka. They have said the same applies to the Seleka forces and Muslims.
Amid the violence, there are also peacemakers. In the southwestern town of Boali, Father Xavier Fagba at St. Peter's Parish Church has sheltered about 650 Muslims since mid-January.
“Now is the time for men of good will to stand up and prove the strength and quality of their faith,” the priest told the BBC.
He said when he took in the Muslim refugees no one in the community understood him. “They attacked and threatened me.”
The church walls have bullet holes from opponents of the Muslims' presence in the church. The refugees fear they will be killed if they leave.
Attacks on Muslims in Boali, including machete attacks, have killed several people including 22 children. Crowds have also torn down the town's two mosques.
Father Fagba said he believes that some of the refugees in his church were involved in attacks on Christian families, though he does not mention this when he talks to them.
“When I talk to them it's a call for them to change their lives and their behavior,” he said, adding that the Muslims should be considered “as our brothers.”
Some townspeople are helping the refugees, but themselves come under attack from Anti-Balaka forces.
Soldiers from Chad have escorted Muslims from Boali back to their country. The troops are sympathetic with the Seleka forces and some have reportedly opened fire on several Boali civilians.
Archbishop Nzapalainga told Aid to the Church in Need that foreign missionaries are serving as a “protective bulwark” for the people and are staying of their own free will. If they leave, he said, the people will be “left standing in the streets.”
“The devil scatters, God gathers. When the people gather around the Church, then God is there,” he said.
He urged the Church to be “the heart that beats in the rhythm of love, without distinguishing as to religion or ethnic identity.”
The archbishop stressed the biblical virtue of comforting others. He said this is put into practice when he stands beside his “enraged” brother.
“I experience his suffering, his weeping,” he said. “My brother suffers with me, my sister suffers with me. This is the kind of sympathy that is shown by the other person. And I believe that God is there.”
The archbishop said that the restoration of security is “the priority of priorities.”
He said people are living in terror, fearing that their neighbors have weapons. There is danger of “anarchy, chaos, total disorder.”
The U.N. has assigned about 7,000 peacekeeping troops to the country. However, the bishop said establishing peace is “impossible” with a force of only several thousand.
A Central African bishop has reported signs of genocide in the growing conflict there, urging an effective security response and warning against the “evil” desire to kill and destroy.
Violence, Genocide, Appeal for Peace