A flare-up of violence in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), on 7 February left a pastor dead and his church demolished.
According to the UN, at least three people were killed and 26 injured, including civilians and combatants.
Meanwhile, various outbreaks of infighting between Muslim factions has caused thousands of Christians to flee their homes in the north of the country.
Pastor Jean-Paul Sankagui of the Eglise du Christ en Centrafrique (ECC) was killed by supporters of local militia leader Youssouf Sy (also called the “Big-man”) at his home in the restive PK5 neighbourhood, following a military operation there by the CAR army and UN peacekeeping forces.
The stated aim of the operation was to interrogate Sy, but he was killed, together with an associate. The President of the ECC, Jean Noel Ndanguere, told World Watch Monitor that in retaliation, Sy’s supporters went on the rampage, injuring and killing people, and destroying property. Sankagui’s church was set on fire, as was the Apostolic and St Mathias Church.
A few weeks before, on the night of 14 January, a tent set up as a temporary place of worship by the Baptist Union of Churches’ Gbaya Dombia congregation was also burnt down. This tent had itself been set up after the church’s previous building was burnt down in 2014.
Twice in the past week, armed individuals also entered the local hospital with the aim of killing patients. A senior UN official condemned the attacks.
PK5 is part of the 3rd district in Bangui and the last remaining predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. According to Gbaya Dombia’s pastor, Muslims said Christians would not be allowed a meeting place in the area until Muslims have returned to the area and reopened their mosques.
Return to recently-vacated IDP camp
Hundreds of internally displaced people (IDPs), shaken by the renewed violence, have returned to the refugee camp at Bangui M’Poko Airport, where they sought refuge when the violence first erupted in 2013. Since December last year, people had slowly begun to return to their abandoned homes.
“The incident took place following a military operation. Then militiamen started shooting. They burnt down our houses. These armed men must be disarmed,” one IDP told local media, on condition of anonymity.
While the army, with the support of 10,000 UN peacekeepers, has been able to help stabilise the situation in the capital, in more rural areas rebel groups are holding the local populations hostage. Only a few days before the incident in Bangui, up to 9,000 people, many of them Christians, were forced out of their homes after rebel infighting in the northern town of Bocaranga – part of the Ouham Pende province.
The UN reported that people fled into the bush after violence erupted between two unnamed armed groups. In the clashes, international NGO compounds were attacked and pillaged and at least one office was burnt down. Shops and markets were “systematically pillaged,” as was a church, said the UN.
On 2 February, clashes between two Séléka factions over a gold mine near Bambari caused renewed displacement, swelling numbers and worsening the already difficult conditions in IDP camps there.
The Central African Republic is currently undergoing an internationally supervised transition. Last year, presidential elections were won by Faustin-Archange Touadera, the last prime minister under former president Francois Bozizé, who was deposed in a coup by a coalition of Muslim-dominated rebel groups, led by Michel Djotodia under the Séléka banner.
It was the beginning of a civil war that partitioned the country between Christian and Muslim populations; anti-Balaka (“anti-machete”) vigilantes continue to dominate the south and west, while Séléka elements, with the ethnic Fulani and others, dominate the north and east.
According to a report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, most fighting took place for control of land and resources.