FROM HIS HIDING PLACE, Father Yovane Cox, a Chilean missionary in the Central African Republic, has contacted us with an urgent plea for our prayers. “The cathedral in Bangassou is being attacked,” he told us, adding: “The situation is quite critical, because this attack had already been announced, and yet the UN peace-keeping forces in charge of security here paid no attention to what people told them. It seems almost as though they want to see a massacre here in the cathedral—in the area where the Muslims are being sheltered.”
In May 2017, some 2000 Muslims took refuge on the grounds of the Diocese of Bangassou’s minor seminary (some 200 yards from the cathedral), seeking protection. Today, almost a 1,000 Muslims are still living in the encampment.
“All around this place there are armed men on the prowl, hoping that one of the Muslims will emerge, so that they can kill them,” Father Yovane explained. He also said that their living conditions are atrocious. He added: “Some of the Muslims try to leave the site to look for firewood, while others do so in order to search for food in the houses that have been abandoned around the area.”
A Muslim man was caught by the anti-balakas, (the anti-Muslim rebel gangs) and murdered on the spot. This caused great alarm among the Muslims in the encampment. According to Father Yovane, if it had not been for the contingent of Cameroonian soldiers who intervened, the situation would have been still more critical.
The local priests are watching helplessly, expecting that at any moment the anti-balakas may invade the camp. And with no one intervening to prevent them. Father Yovane said: “By the silence of the state authorities and the inaction of the UN forces in not wanting to move the Muslims still left here, they are simply inviting a confrontation between the two groups and a resulting bloodbath. What we are sounding the alarm about and what we are asking them to do is to please relocate them from this site, because it is the only way of saving those still remaining here—for the most part women and children.”
Nine months have passed since the truce between the anti-balakas and the Muslims broke down. “We are in a situation in which nobody is in control – neither the government, nor the UN nor the local authorities, and still less we ourselves in the Catholic Church,” Father Yovane explained, adding that the Church is the only entity that has remained here to help.
He said that “the Christians are for the most part living in hiding in their villages or in the suburbs. They are too frightened to gather in the churches or in the cathedral. When we celebrate Holy Mass on Sundays, those who attend number no more than 15 or so. We priests are limited in what we can do and our pastoral work is at a standstill. Some of the clergy are living in the capital and the rest are limited in our activities.”
The situation is due to the deep gulf between the positions of the radical Muslims, who see the Catholic Church as complicit (with the anti-balakas), and the anti-balakas themselves, who see the Church as a traitor for protecting the Muslims and giving them shelter. “There is a mutual incomprehension, a very deep antagonism, and the Church finds herself caught in the middle between them, a perfect target for anybody who has lost control of the situation,” Father Yovane explained.
Only two of the eight parishes in the diocese are still functioning and most of the priests are living at the cathedral in Bangassou for their own security. The violence in the region has forced the local Church to close down all the schools of the diocese. “We cannot gather the children in the schools, knowing that it would be immensely difficult to assure their safety in the classrooms,” said father Yovane.
From 2014 to 2016 the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need supported the Catholic church in the Central African Republic with $2.8M.