CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – ACN helps to sustain the “miracle of Pope Francis” 

“The tension may have eased, but it still remains beneath the surface”, said Father Aurelio Gazzera to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He was describing the present situation in the Central African Republic, following the recent clashes that have occurred both in the capital Bangui and in the north of the country. Father Aurelio is a Carmelite missionary priest who has lived for over 20 years in the Central African Republic and who is currently stationed in Bozoum, acting as the director of Caritas in the diocese of Bouar, in the west of the country.

On 11 June some members of the Seleka rebel coalition acted as an escort to some local people who were driving cattle, probably stolen, towards the frontier with Cameroon. When they reached a roadblock close to the small town of Ngaoundaye, the police and some members of the anti-Balaka militia ordered the Seleka fighters to lay down their arms. The result was a gunfight, and in the hours and days that followed, some of the rebels attacked Ngaoundaye in order to “take revenge”, as Father Aurelio explained.

“The inhabitants immediately took refuge in the local mission, run by the Capuchin Fathers”, which was also soon afterwards “visited” by members of the Seleka, “who however limited themselves to robbing a few things and threatening both the friars and the local people, without being too violent”, he added.

In the capital, Bangui, the scene of the clashes was once again the now notorious Muslim quarter known as KM5, or PK5. “Some gangs of Muslims had taken refuge in the quarter, probably protected by the inhabitants of this Muslim enclave, in which no one else dares enter and in which both the police and the UN troops, the Blue Helmets, frequently come off worse.” The gangs had pulled back into the PK5 quarter, following the arrest of some of their members a few days earlier. At the same time, in order to force the authorities to release their comrades, they kidnapped six police officers. “It is really a serious matter that members of the police force should have been kidnapped in the capital of the country”, Father Aurelio commented. “It confirms the extreme weakness of the government.” And although the authorities initially refused to negotiate, the fact that the police officers were freed again and that the trial of the members of this Muslim gang, which had been scheduled for last Saturday, never took place, leads one assume that the government gave in to the demands of the kidnappers.

These were two incidents that were not specifically religious in nature, nonetheless they risk undermining the climate of peace and calm that have prevailed in Central Africa since the visit of the Pope there last November – to the extent that many, including the Archbishop of Bangui, Mgr Dieudonné Nzapalainga, have even spoken in recent months of the “miracle of Pope Francis”. Now these new tensions could explode into new interreligious clashes, especially since, as Father Aurelio explains, “false information is frequently put about on the Internet, claiming that Muslims have been killed or tortured – as though someone is trying to stoke the unrest”. Meanwhile, the Seleka have begun to expand again and now control around 60% of the country.

At such a critical moment it is more than ever essential to continue to promote interreligious dialogue, and it is for this reason that ACN – as part of its new international campaign, Be God’s Mercy – is supporting the organisation of a meeting for dialogue and reconciliation in the capital, Bangui. It will involve around 650 people, including priests, religious and representatives of the various different communities. “It is an extremely important project”, Father Aurelio told ACN, “especially now that there is the danger that people will go back to shooting.”

Marta Petrosillo