Catholic bishops in the Central African Republic have condemned a recent upsurge of violence in the country and called on armed groups to lay down their weapons.
Fighting between rival armed groups erupted in the north-western town of Paoua and its surroundings at the end of December, while in the eastern town of Bangassou, a prominent Catholic priest survived an assassination attempt.
Two ex-Seleka rebel groups – the RJ (Revolution Justice) and the MPC (le Mouvement Patriotique Centrafricain) – are fighting for control of the region’s lucrative natural resources.
The violence broke out on 27 December and tension is still high, with fresh clashes reported on Sunday (14 January).
The violence has claimed more than 100 lives, according to local MPs, and has resulted in a humanitarian crisis.
Some 60,000 people have been displaced, while 15,000 others have fled to neighbouring Chad, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in CAR.
“The painful events which occurred in recent days in some of our prefectures … make us think that our country continues to sink into the abyss,” noted the bishops in a statement issued by the Episcopal conference on Sunday, titled ‘Hope and despair for our country’.
“Armed packs still create anarchy and impose their laws on a tired civilian population, who don’t know where their salvation will come from. In our dioceses we are witnessing on a daily basis this sad reality and deplore the fact that our country is always under the influence of bravado and intrusions of armed militias who do not want the war to stop.”
Nestor Nongo Aziagbia, archbishop of the diocese of Bossangoa, which comprises Paoua and Markounda, the two main towns affected by the recent violence, told World Watch Monitor that the situation is precarious.
He said dozens of people have been killed, thousands of others displaced, and hundreds of properties set ablaze.
Thousands of people have sought refuge at churches in five parishes within Bossangoa, he said, which have set up camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). In Markounda Parish, there are 5,000 displaced people, while there are thousands more on the site of Bantagafo Parish, he said.
The New Year was also marked by attacks targeting the diocese of Bangassou (East), including an assassination attempt.
Father Alain Blaise Bissialo, a priest at Christ-King Parish of Tokoyo, was stabbed by unknown armed men on 4 January.
“The aggression was carried out by eight hooded men, at about 10pm,” José Aguiré, the Archbishop of Bangassou, told World Watch Monitor. “He was bleeding heavily when he was found by other priests, who took him to the hospital.”
Fr. Bissialo was then transferred to Bangui, the capital, for further treatment. “His injuries were not life threatening but he still has difficulty talking and remembering facts,” said Msgr. Aguiré, who also expressed his dismay.
“It’s an unfortunate episode that makes us very sad, but we do not give in to violence. I preach, I pray and I call to the authorities to search for the culprits and bring them to justice so that they pay for what they did,” he said.
Fr. Bissialo, who is the president of the Bangassou Peace and Mediation Committee in the south-east of the country, has been involved in various initiatives for peace and reconciliation between Christian and Muslim communities.
Some believe that his activism for peace and social cohesion in the region may have created enemies.
According to Fr. Martin Modoué, a fellow priest at Christ-King Parish, Father Bissialo “spoke a truth” at a public meeting on 30 December, which could have upset many people “who do not like peace”.
“He denounced the impunity that reigns in the Mbomou [prefecture] and asked the MINUSCA [UN peacekeepers] to open their eyes and find the perpetrators of crimes perpetrated in the region,” Fr. Modoué recalled.
Three days after the attack on Fr. Bissialo, four armed men burst into the premises of St. Peter Claver Cathedral in Bangassou, in the night. They stole some valuables, including a television set.
In reaction, the Episcopal conference condemned the “cowardly and criminal” attack on Fr. Bissialo and “all attempts to intimidate pastoral agents”.
The bishops also denounced “the lack of responsiveness” of some MINUSCA contingents, despite their “own mandate”.
“We call on MINUSCA to develop a strong collaboration with the government, to make good use of its mandate to promote security and peace in areas that are still under the occupation of armed groups,” read their statement.
The bishops also denounced the attitude of armed groups responsible for “terrible abuses” against the civilian population in the areas under their control.
“We call on armed groups to lay down their arms without untenable conditions, in order to put an end to all kinds of crimes and the suffering of our compatriots, the looting of natural resources and the dysfunction of the state,” they said.