Pastor Gerald Bomana, the leader of an evangelical church in Bangui, Central African Republic [CAR], was with his 16-year-old son in one of his ministry’s offices when 40 rebels invaded the building. He recognized one of them—his neighbor, wearing a rebel uniform.
“He was probably the one directing them to my office,” Bomana told international Christian watchdog group Open Doors in June.
The rebels ordered Bomana to hand over 5 million CFA francs (about $10,000), but when he replied he didn’t have that much money, it didn’t slow them down.
“Then you will give us 3 million CFA francs. And these premises will be one of our headquarters. You will see it to it that our troops are fed. We are giving you [a] few days to gather the money and then we will be back,” the rebels said, according to Bomana’s report to Open Doors.
Bomana’s experience is one that many Christians in the country have experienced since the rebels overthrew the government in March and captured Bangui, the country’s capital. The alliance of militant groups, called Seleka, has thousands of fighters and—according to church leaders—ties to Islamic jihadists who target Christians and their churches. On Monday, fighting forced neighboring Cameroon to close its border with CAR. But the growing crisis in this landlocked country—which stretches from West Africa to South Sudan and is nearly the size of Texas—has been largely ignored outside Africa.
The rebel group took all it could carry from Bomana’s building, loading everything from computers, printers, chairs, and other appliances to 10 motorbikes used for ministry-related travel into their pick-up trucks.
“One of the rebels approached my son,” Bomana said. “He slowly put his hand in his trouser pocket. He took my son’s purse, opened it up and removed the 3,000 CFA francs it contained. Then he put it in his own pocket. [Knowing well what the rebels are capable of], my son was terrified.”
Human Rights Watch sent workers to document persecution in CAR and found Seleka fighters had attacked 34 villages and towns between February and June. They burned more than 1,000 houses and killed at least 40 civilians.
Observers estimate Seleka musters 1,000 to 3,000 fighters, according to an article by CNN, and government officials accuse the group of harboring “foreign provocateurs” who only want the country’s vast mineral wealth.
Others believe the money paid to Seleka soldiers comes from the same sources that funded overthrows and revolts in Mali, Libya, and Tunisia. Those sources could include al-Qaeda.
Catholic leaders say Seleka is made up of Islamic jihadists targeting Christians and their churches.
“What abominable acts, what humiliating, degrading and inhuman forms of treatment,” the CAR Catholic bishops’ justice and peace commission said in a statement. “Not knowing what to do next, the population is living in permanent anguish, amid fear, pillage, rape, injustice, violence and the settling of scores.”
With the political upheaval in CAR and a predominantly Christian population, the tension between Christians and the 15 percent Muslim population does not come as a surprise. But some Christian and Islamic leaders are coming together: Open Doors reports that Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim leaders met in June and agreed to act together to find a solution to CAR’s growing unrest.
Until peace is reached, Christians like Pastor Bomana will continue to live in fear of Seleka rebels. Bomana is in fact still on the run.
A day after the first attack, the rebels came to his house demanding payment. Bomana knew his family was in danger.
“We loaded all the remaining belongings in the cars and brought them to the hotel,” he said. “A few days later I sent one of my co-workers to check if the cars were really in safekeeping. He found out that the cars were no longer there. … We then knew that we had lost everything.”