By Bob Smietana
An attack on a church in the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) left at least 15 people dead on Tuesday.
According to Reuters, witnesses say gunmen shot at worshipers at Notre Dame de Fatima church and threw grenades during a service. Worshipers reportedly fled through a hole in the wall made by police.
“Filled with panic, some Christians began to flee until bullets and grenades began to fall in the parish grounds, trapping those who remained in the compound,” said Moses Aliou, a priest at the church, according to Reuters.
Another priest at the church, Albert Toungoumale Baba, was reportedly killed in the shooting. Thousands of worshippers were attending services when the attack came, according to The New York Times.
The attack led to more shootings and chaos in a nearby marketplace, said Pete Ekstrand, an Evangelical Covenant Church missionary in the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo. A nearby mosque was set on fire.
“A total of about 50 were killed and up to 200 are injured and in the hospitals,” said Ekstrand, who had been headed to the CAR to meet with church leaders there. “The tension is very high.”
This is the second attack on the church in the last four years.
Religious violence has plagued the CAR since 2014, when the former president was ousted by a rebel group known as Séléka, most of whom were Muslim. That’s led to the formation of Christian militias known as “anti-balaka” groups.
Former rebels and militias have clashed on and off ever since, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Amid widespread violence and disruption, more than a million people have had to flee their homes according to USCIRF—either moving to another part of the country or leaving altogether.
“Ongoing violence between Muslim-majority ex-Séléka militias and Christian majority anti-balaka militias has resulted in thousands of people dead, 2.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and more than 542, 000 refugees and 688,000 IDPs as of the end of 2017—the highest number of displaced Central Africans since 2014,” said USCIRF.
The commission recently labeled the CAR as a “country of particular concern” for the second year in a row. The country’s population is mostly Christian. About 10 percent of people are Muslims. The two groups remain deeply divided.
“The Central African Republic (CAR) remains violent, fragile, and fractured along religious lines. In 2017, targeted killings based on religious identity escalated in the center and east of the country,” the commission said in its report.
U.S. officials fear more violence is to come. They say the government of the CAR has not taken enough steps to protect religious freedom.
“Government officials failed to acknowledge that the conflict has resulted in gross violations of religious freedom, including widespread killing based on religious identity, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims, separation of communities based on religion, and the destruction of houses of worship,” the commission said in its annual report.
Social media has made things worse, said Kessy Ekomo-Soignet, who runs a youth program in the nation’s capital.
She told The New York Times that people in the CAR use Facebook and other social media to stir up hatred against their neighbors—especially those of a different faith.
That includes posts like, “We have to get revenge—we have to kill them all,” she said.
“After an attack, then you see people say, ‘I told you so. I told you we need to kill them, to get them first,’” she told the Times. “We’re pretty sure there will be more revenge.”
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.