Bishop Juan José Aguirre, a native of Spain who leads the Roman Catholic diocese of Bangassou in the Central African Republic described another instance in which he tried to preserve the lives of Muslims persecuted by Anti-Balaka forces. He reported that when he heard that a group of drug-addled Anti-Balaka militants were threatening a Muslim woman and her five children, he hurried to a nearby river bank to save the family. When Bishop Aguirre arrived, he was too late. The woman and her children, ages 3 to 12, had all been shot by the Anti-Balaka forces. “I reproached them for their crime, but they defied me,” said Aguirre.
 
The shooting took place on Sunday morning. The Muslim family was with a group of three Catholic priests and three religious sisters. They sought to cross a river into the Congo and celebrate Mass there. “The devil was waiting on the river bank for Muslims,” wrote the Bishop in a reflection he sent to Alfa y Omega -- a Catholic news website produced in Spain. The Anti-Balaka terrorists, he said, separated the Muslim woman and her family from the others and killed them in cold blood. “I went running to the river, but they had already committed their crime,” Aguirre wrote. 


                                                             

Bishop Juan Jose Aguirre (L) and Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga (L) speak with

UN Peacekeepers 

The Muslim mother suffered a gunshot wound to her lung. However, she revived later in the morning and although bleeding was able to find someone to take her to the Catholic mission. From there, she was taken to a hospital. Bangassou is a city of approximately 35,000.
 
Aguirre said that the Moroccan UN peacekeepers, the so-called Blue Helmets, take a defensive posture despite the bloodshed. In this case, however, “they at least went to recover the bodies,” reported the bishop. “The afternoon was more peaceful but there was mourning over the murder today of innocents in Bangassou,” reported the bishop. “The just have been killed by sinners. History repeats itself.” His message to his fellow Spaniards concluded that the level of suffering in the area “can only be understood by looking upon the innocent Victim at Calvary.”
 
Just two weeks prior to this massacre, Aguirre placed himself as a human shield so as to prevent the massacre of approximately 2,000 Muslims who had taken refuge in a local mosque where they were besieged by an armed so-called anti-Muslim self-defense force. 
 
The hundreds of Muslims have been given refuge in the Bangassou cathedral, traumatized by the murder of their iman. A spokesman for the Muslim community of the Central African Republic said that the Catholic Church in Aguirre provided an example of the love of God. “We’ve all got our boots on,” Aguirre said, adding: “These days are crucial.” He has given over the cathedral, a seminary, and his residence to the Muslims for shelter. Two emissaries from the national government visited last Tuesday to take a measure of the situation. Aguirre said, “It is overwhelming to leave so many people in the seminary. But it looks like they don’t want to start a refugee camp.”
 

An upsurge of violence in the Central African Republic in recent months has displaced about 11,000 people over the last three months. Aguirre said, “The whole country, especially those places with the most Muslims, have their gaze fixed on Bangassou. If many Muslims are killed or wounded, that situation could explode again in places where it was very costly to calm down [after the 2013-2014 civil war]. For example, the PK5 neighborhood in Bangui, where there is the mosque that Pope Francis had the courage to visit. They could even attack Bangassou.”
 
Bishop Aguirre: human shield
 
On May 13, approximately well-armed men arrived in Bangassou. Calling themselves a self-defense organization, they were mostly Christian and were seeking retribution for the violence unleashed by a group of Muslim Seleka terrorists. “The self-defense groups don’t differentiate between the Muslims, and they have proven to be equally criminal as the others,” Aguirre said.
 
The self-defense forces attacked Tokoyo, a Muslim sector in Bangassou. The residents fled to the local mosque, seeking refuge. There they were besieged by the self-defense forces. Aguirre arrived on the next day to negotiate with the armed men and protect the besieged. “I made myself a human shield for many hours. No one shot me. But they shot at the Muslims as if they were rabbits,” he said. Bishop Aguirre went into the mosque to aid the terrified people there. The terrorists shot around him, killing Muslims on the right and left. “I shouted at them in the local language that they shouldn't shoot. But they shot at the Muslims like they were rabbits.” He added, “Someone was shot very close to me. I myself took him to a hospital while he still had the bullet in him.”
 
Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, who leads the conference of bishops of the Central African Republic, arrived on May 15 to offer support. A group of Portuguese soldiers serving in the MINUSCA peacekeeping force of the United Nations arrived later and was eventually able to evacuate the Muslims from the mosque. They were accompanied to the Catholic seminary in Bangassou. According to the Red Cross, there were more than 100 killed by the attackers. Among them was the iman.
 
The spokesman for the Muslim community of the Central African Republic, Farah Mahamat, told Alfa y Omega “I’ve spoken to the Muslims who are there at the seminary and traumatized by the massacre and especially the murder of their leader.” He added, “Cardinal Nzapalainga was quite moved. He had just spoken to the imam when he went to negotiate again with the besiegers and found out that the imam was dead. He told the people to be patient and believe in God.” Mahamat told the website, that his fellow Muslims “have found hope, thanks to the material and psychological aid provided by Bishop Aguirre, who was even willing to sacrifice himself to save them. They say that if it had not been for him, all of them would have been murdered. The Catholic Church has given an example of the love of God.”
 
Since May 24, Bishop Aguirre has labored to aid more than 2,000 guests with the help of the Catholic Church, nonprofits and the United Nations. On his radio programs, he has called for peace and understanding between the various groups. He has called upon the armed groups to put down their weapons, on the UN peacekeepers to refrain from actions that would lead to further tensions, and upon the Muslim community to begin discerning next steps. “It would be a disaster if they were to leave,” he said.
 
However, the self-defense groups have vowed that they will not leave Bangassou until all Muslims have abandoned the city. “Some want to stay because they were born here. Others want to leave for good,” said Aguirre. “They’ve lost everything. Their home and stores have been burned….But it be an enormous disaster should they leave. Ever since I came here, 35 years ago, Bangassou has been a multicultural and multi-religious society.”
 
Violence has been increasing ever since September 2016. Armed skirmishes are occurring on an almost daily basis. According to Oxfam, about 60 percent of the territory of the Central African Republic is under the control of armed groups. According to the UN High Commission on Human Rights, over 475,000 people have fled the CAR to neighboring countries, while another 434,000 have fled their homes to safer areas within the country. To these, approximately 100,000 more refugees have been added over the last six months. 
 
UN representatives have come to Bangassou to observe how the mediation groups founded by Bishop Aguirre might be reproduced elsewhere in the country. According to Muslim spokesman Mahamat, “Groups from outside are endangering this work on which both Christian and Muslim leaders have worked so hard. They continue to insist that this is not a war of religion. Those who came to kill Muslims did not do so in the name of Christianity or Jesus. The two armed groups want to manipulate the conflict by making people believe that it is over religion; this is false. They don’t want Muslims and Christians to live together; they cause chaos and more chaos in order to pillage and support their rebel movements. This war is political and will not end soon. It is a war that has been unleashed for control of power and riches.”
 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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