OXFORD, England — An Italian missionary said although Islamist extremists are targeting Christians all over the Central African Republic, "the bloodiest treatment has often been reserved for Catholic catechists."
"Unless these attacks are stopped, the suffering and displacement can only grow," said Carmelite Father Aurelio Gazzera, who works in Bozoum, Central African Republic. "Although the international community continues to hold meetings and talk inanely, nothing concrete is being done to help people here or hold back the extremists, terrorists and Islamists who are inflicting such damage."
In an email and in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service, Father Gazzera said the Aug. 13 Independence Day prayers had taken place in a "sad atmosphere" in local villages, where thousands had fled to escape violent looting by members of an Islamist-led rebel Seleka alliance, which occupied much of the country last spring.
Father Gazzera said at least 15 people had been killed and 1,000 made homeless in attacks on five large villages in his Bouar Diocese by Seleka, which was trying to profit from the region's gold mines.
"The situation remains fragile and the killings are continuing near my mission," said the priest, who has worked in the Central African Republic since 1992.
"Thank God, most refugees are being accommodated by local families while temporary shelter is sought for them," he said. "But what's most worrying is that mostly Muslim villages are left in relative peace, while those with Christian or animist populations face harsh treatment."
He said church leaders had tried to let the international community know what was going on, but added that "while security was already weak, it's now vanished completely."
Catholics make up a third of the 4.4 million inhabitants of the Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries. Muslims are about a tenth of the population.
Seleka, composed partly of Arab-speaking Islamists, launched an offensive in December, accusing then-President Francois Bozize of reneging power-sharing promises. After the rebels seized the capital, Bangui, March 24, they suspended the constitution.
Father Gazzera said the stabilization force provided by troops from neighboring countries was too "poorly planned, equipped and coordinated" to challenge Seleka's actions.
"Whereas it might have been possible to do something at the beginning, when rebel numbers were limited, the international community has allowed this crisis to develop too long," he said. "There are now 15,000-20,000 armed men at large, joined by petty delinquents, so it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to rein them in."
The U.N. Security Council was to discuss the situation in the Central African Republic Aug. 14, after an early August U.N. report confirmed the rule of law had become "almost nonexistent," while "abuse of power and impunity" had "become the norm."
In June, the Catholic bishops said Christian and Muslim leaders had sought to "defuse the religious tension" that rebel leaders were trying to impose. But the bishops warned that unity had been "harshly tested by the deplorable complicity" shown by some Muslims toward atrocities by Seleka fighters, who continued to "kill, rape, pillage and ransack with impunity."
In an Aug. 12 peace appeal from Bouar, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders said they feared the country now faced "the nightmare of ethnic or religious war," and warned that "no creed, either Christian or Muslim, allows violence, murder, theft, robbery and rape."