Attacks on places of worship: Armed groups raise the stakes in the Central African Republic

Attacks on places of worship in the Central African Republic (CAR) are not a new phenomenon.

In March 2013, the predominantly Muslim rebel alliance, Seleka, seized power, and in the crisis that followed, there were reports of looting and attacks on worshipers in churches initially, spreading to mosques and other places of worship as the conflict assumed an increasingly religious dimension.

Even after the election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra three years later, attacks on places of worship continue at a disturbing rate.

In the capital city Bangui, tensions flare periodically near the KM5 district. In May 2018, at least 15 people, including a clergyman, were killed and 100 injured in an attack on the Our Lady Fatima Catholic Church. On 7 February 2017, three churches were burned and a pastor killed in the same district.

Attacks such as these have taken a new and alarming turn since November 2018.

What’s new?

Within the space of three weeks, there were two unprecedented attacks on church-run internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. On 15 November, the IDP camp run by the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Alindao town was set on fire and destroyed, and the Cathedral and its surrounding properties were looted. Consequently, thousands of IDPs were forced to seek refuge in other nearby camps or hide in the bush. At least 40 people were killed during this attack, many of whom were trapped in their tents as they were set alight. Subsequently another IDP camp run by a local Catholic church in Ippy town was attacked on 4 December.

These attacks mark the first time that armed groups have razed IDP camps to the ground – destroying the temporary shelters and personal belongings of the displaced. Following the attack, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Najat Rochdi, visited Alindao and told journalists that “everything was burned and [there is] a level of despair which is really heart-breaking”. Ms. Rochdi reported that the newly displaced community have vowed never to return to the site.

The attacks were reportedly carried out by the armed group Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC), which is led by a former Seleka general, Ali Darassa, and is predominantly comprised of fighters from the Fulani ethnic group. While the November attack was reportedly an act of retaliation for the killing of a Muslim man by the anti-Balaka in Alindao, the causes of the December attack are still unclear. (Editor’s note: Sustained and severe human rights violations during the civil conflict eventually resulted in retributive violence following the emergence of anti-Seleka groups commonly referred to as ‘anti–Balaka’. Although the anti-Balaka groups have been widely described as “Christian militia”, they are in reality composed of pre-existing village defence groups bolstered by former soldiers loyal to deposed President Bozize, former Seleka fighters, angry youths seeking revenge for Seleka violations, and common criminals.)

Remains of the Sacred Heart Cathedral compound in Alindao town.

The rebels are raising the stakes”

Reflecting on the most recent attack, CSW’s local contact highlighted that “the rebels are raising the stakes”. Indeed, the stakes are high.

These attacks have caused IDPs to flee for shelter and resources, and the humanitarian situation in the CAR is too fragile to sufficiently bear their needs.

Across the CAR, food availability and humanitarian access are severely limited. From April to May 2018, 15 humanitarian organisations were obliged to temporarily suspend their activities due to security issues, and the number of incidents targeting aid workers almost doubled between the first and second quarter of 2018. Further, the IDPs who are hiding in the bush are vulnerable to violations such as sexual and gender-based violence.

Those affected by the recent attacks have been displaced once more in this precarious context, and their plight merits an effective response. 

However, UN peacekeepers have failed to adequately respond to the changing dynamics of the conflict. UN Peacekeeping troops who work under the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), mandated by the Security Council, have been criticised for not actively protecting civilians in Alindao.

Fr Mathieu Bondobo, General Vicar of the Archdiocese of Bangui, told Vatican News that the Bishop of Alindao had been receiving threats from armed groups in the area, which he reported to MINUSCA. These threats indicate that the attack was premeditated and could have been averted or contained more effectively. However, the Mauritanian and Burundian peacekeepers in Alindao failed to use force to prevent UPC fighters from attacking an already vulnerable displaced community.

What can be done?

It is vital that the government, in coordination with MINUSCA, takes reports of impending attacks seriously and deploys the necessary personnel to protect civilians. Particular attention should be given to threats issued against church-run IDP camps. There is also an urgent need to address impunity and ensure perpetrators of these heinous crimes are brought to justice.

Since its inaugural session on 22 October this year, the Special Criminal Court in the CAR has been able to collect complaints and investigate grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. While its inquiry and prosecution strategy still need to be defined, there is reason to hope that this juridical system might help combat the culture of impunity that has historically surrounded human rights violations in the CAR.

The Special Criminal Court has the potential to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable and give a platform for victims to be heard in their country, which is an important part of breaking the cycles of violence. However, the court suffers from acute funding shortages which, if left unaddressed, could prevent it from bringing justice to victims.

Efforts must also be made to ensure that all parties to the conflict in the CAR are brought to justice. In the last month, two people were extradited to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, to be tried for crimes against humanity. While such attempts to address impunity should be encouraged, it is concerning that the detainees are from the same armed group, the anti-Balaka.

If justice is to be truly served, it must be served on all fronts.

The close proximity of the recent attacks on church-run IDP camps signals that the CAR government needs to respond to human rights abuses promptly, proactively and impartially, and the international community should assist wherever possible and appropriate.

By CSW’s Central African Republic Team