Church in Central African Republic Shelters Muslims Fleeing Anti-balaka Extremists

More than 1,500 Muslims who found refuge in a church over a month ago are growing restless and desperate, priest says.

At least 1,500 people, mostly Muslim civilians, currently stuck in a Catholic church in the country’s southeast, are growing increasingly desperate, a priest has told Al Jazeera.

The displaced people took refuge in the cathedral in the town of Bangassou after fleeing deadly violence in mid-May.

“The situation is not safe enough to leave, and so they cannot move from here,” said Father Alain Blaise Bissialo, the priest at the church.

“There are men who walk around town with guns.”

The crisis in Bangassou began between May 13-17 when Anti-balaka, a vigilante militia made up of mostly Christians, launched a series of attacks on Muslims in Tokoyo, a largely Muslim district of Bangassou.

Thousands flocked to a nearby mosque to seek refuge.

Yet, the mosque was subsequently attacked too, culminating in the killing of the local imam.

In an attempt to save civilians at the mosque, the Catholic bishop sent trucks to Tokoyo to transport as many civilians as possible back to the church for their safety.

“At last count, 150 people were killed during the violence since mid-May, but this number could rise,” Antoinne Mbao Bogo, president of the local branch of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera on Friday.

Alidou Djibril, a displaced person at the church, said there was a shortage of food and clothes.

“It’s hard for us, we have to stay in the same place, we cannot move, and we are fasting,” he said.

Djibril said they only received food one week after arriving at the church, adding that the Anti-balaka were not allowing traders to bring food to them.

According to the United Nations, most of Bangassou’s 35,000 residents fled, some to sites for internally displaced people and others across into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

MINUSCA, the UN’s mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), said the security situation in Bangassou has calmed significantly, adding, however, that it was still not safe for the displaced to return home.

“Despite the MINUSCA patrols, the area is not safe enough and their homes and businesses have been destroyed, and so many have nowhere to go,” Vladimir Montiero, MINUSCA spokesperson, told Al Jazeera from Bangui.

“It is not safe for them to leave the church.”

Bob Libenge, acting president of the local branch of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera that some people were sleeping inside the church and the rest were outside, on mats, within the complex.

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Al Jazeera