By BosNewsLife Asia Service
BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC (BosNewsLife)– Christians feared more violence Thursday, March 28, as army chiefs pledged allegiance to the Central African Republic’s self-proclaimed president Michel Djotodia whose rebels seized the capital, triggering deadly violence, looting and attacks against churches.
In an appeal monitored by BosNewsLife, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui urged the troubled nation’s new leadership to ensure safety for all residents, including Christians, amid concerns they are targeted by Islamists. “We are again in a difficult moment in which the population is shunted from right to left,” he said in an interview.
Up to 5,000 rebels swept into the riverside capital Sunday, March 24, killing at least 13 South African soldiers in intense fighting and forcing President Francois Bozizé to flee.
Soon after Djutodia’s Séléka rebel group announced the suspension of the constitution and imposed a curfew on the riverside capital, rebels reportedly stormed the Cathedral of Bangui during Palm Sunday mass, robbing the faithful and damaging the inside of the basilica.
The bishop questioned whether the crimes were intended to intimidate Christians in the former French colony, which church watchers say has a population of 45 percent Protestants, 35 percent Catholics and 10 percent Muslims.
“It is time to quickly put an end to these actions that could provoke in people’s minds anti-religious sentiments or that might suggest that this crisis has as its objective the Christians as such,” Nzapalainga added.
Ousted president Bozizé earlier accused the Seleka rebel coalition of representing an extremist Islam, media reports said.
Christians said that during their offensive, missions, Churches and religious buildings were targeted by the rebels in robberies and “systematic” looting.
Since Séléka militants overran Gambo and Bangassou areas in the southeast on March 11, they increasingly targeted Christians. survivors said.
Bishop Juan José Aguirre Muños of Bangassou told reporters that rebels stole about 12 mission cars while destroying several churches when they overran his town. He said the church mission mechanic, Jean Marie, was severely beaten, because he refused to say where the cars were hidden.
The rector’s house of the diocesan minor seminary, the Catholic college, as well as an Internet center, a carpenter’s shop, the pharmacy, and a new surgery block, were also targeted, the church said.
Christians said that the stolen goods were brought to mosques and Muslim traders who could sell them.
In town of Ndele, Pastor Jean Bosco Ndakouzou said rebels looted his house and likely would have killed him had he been home at the time.
Elsewhere, in Bambari, rebels destroyed a Baptist church, burning church benches as firewood, Christians said.
Priest Leo Tibenda of the Catholic Comboni order said rebels initially pledged they would not attack Christians, but the uprising was soon overtaken by Islamists.
“They started victimizing local Christians, telling them their cattle, many given by the church via Caritas, now belonged to the state. Most wear turbans, which isn’t the custom here, and are much better armed than the government’s soldiers. Their presence is fueling serious tension between local Christians and Muslims,” Tibenda told Catholic media.
Archbishop Nzapalainga wondered whether the violence was intended to intimidate Christians. “It is time to quickly put an end to these actions that could provoke in people’s minds anti-religious sentiments or that might suggest that this crisis has as its objective the Christians as such,” he stressed.
“The general mood here is that the Muslim community has been in collusion with Séléka,” he was quoted as saying.
Rights monitors said looters also targeted hospitals and aid groups, including the offices of the United Nations’ Children’s Fund UNICEF in Kaga Bandoro, which were completely looted.
UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado told reporters that her agency also received “credible reports” that rebel groups and pro- government militia have been recruiting children into their ranks.
CHILDREN LOST HOME
“Most vulnerable are children who have lost their home, have been separated from their families, or were formerly associated with armed groups,” she said.
“Even before the current crisis, UNICEF estimated that some 2,500 children both girls and boys, were associated with armed groups in the Central African Republic.”
Mercado said blocked roads and the many armed groups undermined humanitarian aid efforts at a time when nearly 14,000 children expected to suffer from life threatening malnutrition because of looting and the forced closure of nutritional centers.
New Pope Francis said in a statement that he “closely following what is currently happening in the Central African Republic.”
The pontiff added that he wishes to assure his “prayers for all those who are suffering, especially the relatives of the victims, the wounded and those who have lost their homes and have been forced to flee.”
He said: “I call for an immediate halt to the violence and looting, and a political solution to the crisis to be found as soon as possible that would restore peace and harmony to that dear country for too long marked by conflict and division.”
The clashes have underscored concerns about the future of the Central African Republic, which has been through several coups since gaining independence from France in 1960 and is considered one of the least-developed countries in the world.
Analysts say some progress towards stabilizing the country of 4.5 million people was made between 2008 and 2012, before the rebels marched south and captured the capital in March 2013.
Though the landlocked nation has considerable agricultural, water and mineral resources, corruption is widespread, undermining the potentially lucrative timber and diamond industries. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).
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