Muslim gunmen rampaged through a Catholic church compound in the capital of Central African Republic on Wednesday, killing up to 30 people with gunfire and grenades.
Witnesses said the attack happened at the Church of Fatima, where several hundred civilians had sought refuge from mob violence now ravaging Bangui’s streets.
“We were in the church when were heard the shooting outside,” the Rev. Freddy Mboula told the Associated Press. “There were screams and after 30 minutes of gunfire there were bodies everywhere.”
Another priest at the scene, Rev. Paul Emile Nzale, confirmed about 30 people were killed in the attack.
An AP reporter counted at least 20 bodies at one city hospital, where they were taken because the morgue was closed. A second hospital confirmed another three bodies.
The church attack is blamed on Muslim fighters whose Seleka coalition was ousted from political power about five months ago. The brutal Muslim rebel regime seized power by force in March 2013.
Such Boko Haram-style violence—storming a house of worship—has been rare in CAR. Catholic churches have made themselves sanctuaries for Christian and Muslim civilians since the latest period of bloodshed erupted in December.
The media have characterized the CAR crisis as ethnic cleansing—a battle fueled by mutually harbored religious animosity. Local church leaders say it is a political armed hijacking of religious sentiments. Now a refugee in Chad, Mahamat Khalil, 25, shares the view taken by many Muslims who have left CAR this year: The conflict flared because Christians were jealous since “90 percent of the economy is run by Muslims,” he said. But that simplistic explanation ignores the context of Islamic violence before, during, and after the Seleka regime. Certainly fear and anger escalated over Seleka tactics: In most Seleka rampages—still occurring—Muslim civilians have been spared as rebels raped and killed Christians and looted their homes.
Khalil, a Chadian and son of a former transporter in Bangui, saw a turning point for Muslims in December: Operation Sangaris soldiers from France and UN-backed, African-led peacekeepers arrived to help stem violence, and the city’s Muslim minority began leaving.
Khalil made it to Chad in January, just after the Seleka were forced from power and Christian militiamen began retaliating in tit-for-tat violence in Bangui. Following this week’s church attack, Christian fighters began putting up blockades on roads around Bangui to prevent the perpetrators from escaping.
Interim President Catherine Samba Panza’s transitional government has been tasked with organizing elections by February 2015. But a viable voting process could prove impossible because of the ongoing violence, and because Seleka rebels destroyed scores of voting lists as they ransacked town after town across the country.
The CAR crisis has displaced nearly 1 million people. Up to 100,000 have sheltered on the grounds of the Bangui airport over the past six months, guarded by French and other European peacekeepers. Since May 11, CAR’s northern border with Chad has been closed to non-Chadians by Chadian presidential order. But the UN estimates nearly 100,000 refugees already live in camps in southern Chad, along with thousands more Chadian returnees airlifted since December to the Chadian capital, N’djamena.