RLPB 454. Central African Republic (CAR): Cathedral Massacre
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 454 | Wed 09 May 2018
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: CATHEDRAL MASSACRE
— tensions in Bangui at boiling point; threat of renewed conflict.
by Elizabeth Kendal
CFF Director of Advocacy
Bangui is the mostly Christian capital city of mostly Christian Central African Republic (CAR). Within the city is a Muslim enclave known as PK5. When Seleka — an alliance of local and foreign Islamic militias — seized control of Bangui in March 2013, communal violence quickly spiralled out of control [see RLPB 210 (15 May 2013)]. Vigilante ‘self-defence’ militias proliferated on both sides. Today, PK5’s ‘self-defence’ militias comprise mostly ex-Seleka fighters. Initially the Muslims of PK5 welcomed the militants. However, once security in Bangui had been restored, PK5’s militias did not retire. Rather, they got busy running extortion and protection rackets, attacking and robbing local civilians and blocking the return of state authorities. Harassed and helpless, PK5’s Muslim residents repeatedly sought help from MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping force. Eventually, with community leaders serving as mediators, MINUSCA gave the militias an opportunity to voluntarily disarm and participate in socioeconomic programs along with the wider community. The militias refused, leaving MINUSCA with no option but to act.
At 2 a.m. on Sunday 8 April armed peacekeepers and CAR security forces moved into PK5 to dismantle the criminal militia base. Fighting continued through the day; eleven peacekeepers were wounded along with 20 others, including many civilians. Fresh violence erupted on Tuesday 10 April, culminating in a four-hour gun battle. Afterwards, hundreds of angry PK5 residents laid the bodies of 16 dead Muslim civilians in front of MINUSCA headquarters. MINUSCA spokesperson, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, was furious that the criminals had armed civilians and deliberately placed them in harm’s way. [As the militants were no doubt aware, in an asymmetric conflict, the weaker force gets immense propaganda value from dead civilians.] Islamic militias vowed revenge.
On the morning of Tuesday 1 May a PK5 militia leader, Moussa Empereur, was wounded while resisting arrest. In retaliation, his militia headed straight for Bangui’s Catholic Cathedral, Notre Dame de Fatima Church, shooting civilians as they went. Inside the Cathedral were some 1500 Catholics (including state officials such as Tina Touadera, the First Lady, and Francis Bozize, the son of a former president) who had gathered for the anniversary of St Joseph. The militants threw grenades into the church. Fr Albert Toungoumale-Baba (71), vicar of St Mathias (2km away) and chaplain of the Fraternite Saint Joseph movement, was leading the celebration; he was killed in a blast and died by the pulpit. In all, at least 24 were killed and more than one hundred wounded.
A large crowd of distraught and traumatised Christians attempted to carry the body of their slain priest to the Palais de la Renaissance, the country’s presidential palace. They had been hoping to see their president, Faustin-Archange Touadera, but with tensions soaring, police intervened and dispersed the crowd. The Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga appealed for calm: ‘It’s at most difficult moments like this that true heroes arise and find the strength to propose an alternative, saying no to the evil of violence, barbarism and destruction, and choosing the good of love, forgiveness and reconciliation,’ he said.
On Friday 4 May Prime Minister Simplice Sarandji announced that a convoy comprising several vehicles loaded with fighters belonging to the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central Africa (FPRC) had been stopped near Dekoa. Dekoa is 80km south of the front-line, rebel-held town of Kaga Bandoro, on the road to the capital, Bangui. Alarmed residents had spotted the convoy and alerted authorities who then captured the militants. After the 8-10 April clashes, FPRC was one of two Islamic militias that threatened to launch an offensive on Bangui from Kaga Bandoro.
Whilst MINUSCA maintains that the Cathedral massacre was a spontaneous reaction to the arrest of Moussa Empereur, the government suspects the attack on the cathedral had actually been pre-planned. Tensions are soaring. Barricades have been erected in and around the PK5 neighbourhood and residents are blocking access to MINUSCA troops. There are fears Bangui could be engulfed in a fresh outbreak of conflict. Religious leaders have proclaimed ‘three days of prayer in all the churches and mosques, 10, 11 and 12 May’. May the Lord of all grace and mercy hear and answer their prayers.
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL:
* expose and sever all the supply-lines that keep CAR’s Islamic militants (many of whom are foreign fighters) flush with funds for weapons and vehicles.
* intervene to ‘turn back the battle’ and help MINUSCA and CAR’s Armed Forces restore security and liberate territory currently held by Islamic militias. ‘Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.’ (Psalm 20:7 ESV)
* bless and empower the peacemakers — Christian and Muslim; may he magnify their voices, multiply their message and open people’s hearts to receive it, so that CAR will know peace.
* grant divine wisdom to all CAR’s political, religious and community leaders, that they will make wise decisions, utter wise words, and provide wise leadership to a traumatised, frightened nation; may the Lord redeem all suffering to the praise of his glorious name.
SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
CATHEDRAL MASSACRE IN CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC (CAR)
PK5 is a Muslim enclave in CAR’s capital, Bangui. It has been thoroughly infiltrated by Islamic militants who harass, abuse and extort the Muslim residents with impunity. After the militants refused to disarm voluntarily, UN peacekeepers and CAR troops entered PK5 on 8 April to dismantle the militia bases. Days of fighting ensued, with civilians among the dead. Islamic militias vowed revenge. On 1 May, after a militia leader was arrested, PK5 militants retaliated, targeting Bangui’s Catholic Cathedral where some 1500 Catholics were celebrating an anniversary. Armed with firearms and grenades, the militants killed at least 24 and wounded more than 100. On 4 May a convoy of Islamic militants was arrested while en route from rebel-held territory to Bangui. Please pray for CAR and its Christians.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).