(RNS) A cycle of violence in the Central African Republic is quickly degenerating into a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, amid a deteriorating humanitarian crisis, church leaders and U.N. officials warn.
The landlocked nation of 4.6 million people has experienced chaos since March, when an Islamist rebel alliance known as “Seleka” overthrew President Francois Bozize, a Christian, and installed rebel commander Michel Djotodia as president.
Seleka was formed in December 2012, when Islamists and other rebel groups from Chad and Sudan joined forces. The militants had crossed into the country, attacking government installations and destroying churches and church missions, businesses and homes, Christian agencies report.
In the latest development, the U.N. said Wednesday that some 2,000 people were seeking shelter at a Catholic mission in the city of Bouca, in the northwest of the country.
Hopes for peace had grown after Djotodia disbanded the Seleka in September, but sections of ex-Seleka fighters are still attacking villages and church centers.
Church leaders say the violence is surging, while U.N. officials say the situation is slowly degenerating into a Christian-Muslim conflict as the rebels escalate attacks and Christian militia retaliate. Some have voiced fears of a potential genocide.
“We did not have tensions until the arrival of Seleka,” said the Rev. Andre Golike, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Central African Republic.
The armed conflict has produced 400,000 internally displaced persons and 64,000 refugees. International groups say people are in urgent need of relief aid.
“The situation is bad and the people extremely worried,” said Golike. “There are also constant killings and abuse of civilians’ rights. Many are fleeing to the neighboring countries.”
On Nov. 18, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a report to the U.N. Security Council warned that violence in the country risked spilling further out of control. In the report, Ban’s adviser expressed concern over revenge attacks between Christian and Muslim groups.
“We must do everything in our powers to de-escalate the religious tensions between Christian and Muslim communities,” said Jeffrey Feltman, the undersecretary for political affairs.
The Roman Catholic Church has reported the most property damage. In June, it lost 28 cars and three motorcycles in the Diocese of Bangassou, a city in the southeastern region of the country. A pediatric hospital, a pharmacy and an Internet cafe were also burned down, Bishop Juan Jose Aguirre of Bangassou reported.