CAR crisis: The church sheltering Muslims

Father Xavier Fagba in St Peter's Parish Church in Boali, CAR

Father Xavier Fagba wandered past the wooden pews inside St Peter's Parish Church in the small, shabby town of Boali in the Central African Republic, and patted a few children's heads before settling down to help a tearful six-year-old girl who had stubbed her toe.

In a country busily ripping itself apart in a bloodthirsty cycle of revenge, Father Fagba and his congregation are a remarkable exception - an unlikely group now bound together by a messy combination of high ideals and the purest desperation.

The crowds sheltering inside his church - families camped out in the aisles, luggage piled high on the altar, bags of food in the font, Christmas bunting still hanging from the rafters - are all Muslims seeking sanctuary, convinced that if they leave the compound they will be killed on the spot on the dusty streets of Boali.

"Now is the time for men of good will to stand up and prove the strength and quality of their faith," said Father Fagba, standing in his floor-length black cassock beside a concrete wall peppered with bullet holes.

"When I did this, nobody in the community understood me. They attacked and threatened me."

The Muslims - about 650 in all - arrived at the church on 16 and 17 January.

A woman and baby sheltering St Peter's Parish Church in Boali, CAR About 650 Muslims have sought shelter at the church in Boali
Muslim men sheltering in St Peter's Parish Church in Boali, CAR They fled after Christian crowds tore down two mosques in the town
A woman and child sheltering St Peter's Parish Church in Boali, CAR Some businessmen tried to get supplies to the church a few weeks ago but were targeted by Christian militias

The balance of power in the Central African Republic was changing fast, with the overwhelmingly Muslim Seleka fighters forced to retreat, and local Christian militias reasserting their control.

Start Quote

It's not safe in this church. Every evening they shoot at the building”

End Quote Aisatou Hamadou A Muslim sheltering in St Peter's

Over previous months, tens of thousands of predominantly Christian villagers across the country had been terrorised and forced to flee from their homes by the Seleka.

Now it was the Muslims' turn to be singled out.

Aisatou Hamadou saw her husband hacked to death in the market in Boali.

Her six-year-old son escaped with a machete wound on his head.

Christian crowds tore down the town's two mosques.

At least 22 children are reported to have died during the violence.

"It's not safe in this church. Every evening they shoot at the building. The Christians don't want us here. They want to kill us all," said Ms Hamadou.

Nearby, 67-year-old Adamou Mohammed was close to tears as he touched his bandaged forehead and described how his Christian neighbours had attacked him with a machete.

"We must leave this country. They do not like us here now," he said.

CAR's religious make-up

  • Christians - 50%
  • Muslims - 15%
  • Indigenous beliefs - 35%

Source: Index Mundi

Father Fagba has struggled to find enough food and supplies to look after his guests.

What's more, he believes some of those now taking refuge in his church were themselves involved in attacks on Christian families in the area last year.

"I've spoken to those who have done bad things. But I have not mentioned their deeds," he said.

"When I talk to them it's a call for them to change their lives and their behaviour."

'The must all leave'

At 13:00, the men gathered in a narrow strip of shade outside the church, next to the concrete clock tower, to pray.

The grass and dirt compound is now encircled by spools of razor wire.

A group of African peacekeepers, from neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville, stationed at the church, intermittently patrolled the area.

A few of the Muslims wandered beyond the razor wire.

Anti-balaka fighters in CAR In most areas of the vast country there are not enough peacekeepers to confront the anti-balaka fighters

Father Fagba said some people in the town appreciate what he is trying to do and help those trapped inside.

But when some local businessmen began bringing food and water to the church a few weeks ago, he says they were quickly targeted by the Christian "anti-balaka" militia and "wounded and threatened."

On a sweltering afternoon, five young anti-balaka swaggered down the main street beside the church compound, good-luck charms suspended round their necks, bleary eyes hiding behind sunglasses, eccentric headgear flaunted like sneering catwalk models.

Start Quote

Father Xavier Fagba in St Peter's Parish Church in Boali, CAR

The Muslims discovered in our church that the God we worship is the same as their God. And that's the vision the whole of this country needs to have”

End Quote Fr Fagba

"There should be no more Muslims in our country. They must all leave," said one of the men, who looked about 18 and said his name was Mad Dog.

"And if they don't, we must kill them all. It doesn't work for us like this."

In some areas the anti-balaka have now been confronted and disarmed by foreign troops.

But elsewhere they continue to fill the gaping power vacuum that exists in much of this vast and often inaccessible country.

Last week, soldiers from neighbouring Chad took some of Boali's Muslims back to their country.

Chad's troops have been frequently criticised for openly siding with the Muslim Seleka fighters, and on this occasion they reportedly opened fire on civilians in Boali, killing several people.

This week, a senior diplomat from Cameroon arrived at the church to see if any of his citizens were among the crowd left behind and in need of repatriation.

The entire congregation lined up in the sun to give him their names - all insisting they were indeed from Cameroon, although it seemed clear that was not the case.

"I have no way of knowing who is telling the truth," said the diplomat quietly.

Later, women lay out clothes on the lawn to dry, and a few cooking fires were lit.

"The Muslims discovered in our church that the God we worship is the same as their God," said Father Fagba.

"And that's the vision the whole of this country needs to have.

"We should consider them as our brothers. What happens here gives me a certain conviction."

Map showing the location of the Central African Republic and the countries that border it
Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Muslims make up only 15% of the population, yet they tried to dominate the CAR with their views. Is it any wonder the remaining 85% refused to turn the other cheek?

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    31. Jim

    I disagree. Compare the - Actions - of both prophets. I don't know how Muslims are ever going to cease, since their prophet fought and killed. Do so-called "moderate" Muslims have a leg to stand on against their fundamentalists?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    marieinaustin (28),

    "... The Gods of their religions are different, named different prophets/saviors/spirits, and gave different instructions."

    Jesus is a prophet in Islam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Marie in austin if you had read both the bible and the qur'an you would know they teach the same stories and parables and have the same prophets including Jesus who is a prophet in Islam.
    A reversal of the Crusades where the Christians invaded and killed the "pagan" civilians who were the natives? or is it a continuation. both religions are peaceful it is the humans that are problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    They really need to have a pow wow and ask their mutual God for clarification. Is the Paraclete mentioned in John 14:16 the Spirit of God or is it Mohammed. "I will give you a Helper (Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor), that He may be with you forever." OMG if it's Mohammed, who can't be depicted bc he'd be carrying a bloody sword, we're doomed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    21. Beatus
    Isn't that what the Christians did for centuries in the name of their scriptures? Invade countries (the Crusades), forcibly stamp out local practices and bring disease (Africa, South America etc.) None of this has nothing to do with true religion.

    The wheel turns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    "The Muslims discovered in our church that the God we worship is the same as their God," said Father Fagba.

    This is not true. The Gods of their religions are different, named different prophets/saviors/spirits, and gave different instructions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    "The blight of religions continue .

    Hundreds of thousands of people are killed/murdered each year around the world, all in the name of religion.

    I despise it"

    So better to be an atheist like Stalin, Chairman Mao, or Hitler?

    The Christian faith is quite clearly against killing, and Father Fagba is living it out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I need to ask when BBC will start focusing on the plights of Christians who are being murdered on a daily basis in Muslim countries? That said, genuine Christians do not murder people. The bible clearly command us not to do and the text that decrees the death penalty for murder Genesis 9:6 has not been repealed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Big deal! There just trying to convert them to Christianity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
    The proper study of Mankind is Man."

    If only the various militants sensitive to this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    A good example of what any Christian that respects his own faith should do. But then, revenge, killing, is not at all in the Christian values. There seems to be different kinds of Christians and different kinds of Muslims. What I think is, as long as a government let's his own people kill each other, they are the ones who should be blamed, not religion per say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.


    A good example where people act out of Christian faith, not religion.

    Religion means to do something in order to go to heaven.
    Faith means one is sure and actions reflect everything good one has received through faith.


  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Muslims are doing what they are taught to do by the Koran Fight to take over territory and subdue non-Muslims. So Muslims invade from the North throughout Africa. Usually, there is no one to fight back against their violence. CAR is an exception and a cycle of revenge unfortunately is the result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    10. Truth logic sustainability the final frontiers
    The blight of religions continue .

    Hundreds of thousands of people are killed/murdered each year around the world, all in the name of religion.

    I despise it
    Do you really think we would stop fighting each other if there was no religion at all? I wish I had that sort of faith. Also, do you despise what Father Fagba is doing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    All John Lennon said with "Imagine" was, "Think as I do, and there'll be peace." Well, nothing new there then.

    We have science for exactly the same reason we have philosophy and religion: we seek answers to the unknown. To ban religion is to ban the most basic of human traits.

    People need to stop thinking an omnipotent creator needs our help to destroy others. It's a double contradiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    In the name of God, when will this sort of intolerance stop?
    Muslim against Christian, Christian against Muslim - each praying to the same God as they heave weapons to butcher God's "other" children.
    Origin of word 'religion' lies in Latin word ligare = to bind - bind our thinking, bind our hearts, bind our minds. I fear the world is damned, unless we can break free from this bondage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Xavier Fagba is 1st & foremost a humanitarian, I am not interested in his religious preferences.

    One is either a humaitarian or not, religion has nothing to do with it, evident by the destructive nature of religious believers.

    Africans need to learn to fight for principles of decency, equality, justice & humanity & stop fighting for religions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.


    The good old Roman Empire, that is the entire reason Christanity got such a strong hold over the European Continent? That Roman Empire?

    The Caliphates of Arabia were by war, not peace, they had some of the most able and famous generals of their age. Rather then create a rose tinted false history to teach everyone, maybe a unbias evidence lead version would be better.


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