Muslims seek refuge in C. African Republic church

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Photo - In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, Muslims pray as they hide at a Catholic church in Carnot a town 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border, in, Central African Republic. The Christian militiamen knew hundreds of Muslims were hiding at the Catholic church and came with their ultimatum: Evict the families to face certain death or else the entire place would be burned to the ground.  (AP Photo/Krista Larson)
In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, Muslims pray as they hide at a Catholic church in Carnot a town 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border, in, Central African Republic. The Christian militiamen knew hundreds of Muslims were hiding at the Catholic church and came with their ultimatum: Evict the families to face certain death or else the entire place would be burned to the ground. (AP Photo/Krista Larson)
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CARNOT, Central African Republic (AP) — The Christian militiamen know hundreds of Muslims are hiding here on the grounds of the Catholic church and now they're giving them a final ultimatum: Leave Central African Republic within a week or face death at the hands of machete-wielding youths.

On Monday, some of the 30 Cameroonian peacekeepers fired into the air to disperse angry militia fighters congregated outside the concrete walls of the church compound. The gunfire sent traumatized children running for cover and set off a chorus of wails throughout the courtyard.

The peacekeepers are all that stand between nearly 800 Muslims and the armed gangs who want them dead. Already the fighters known as the anti-Balaka have brought 40 liters (10 gallons) of gasoline and threatened to burn the church to the ground.

Even the Rev. Justin Nary, who takes in more Muslims by the day, knows he too is a marked man in the eyes of anti-Balaka.

"Walking through town I've had guns pointed in my face four times," he says. "They call my phone and say they'll kill me once the peacekeepers are gone."

Some of those seeking refuge fled from the village of Guen, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) away, after at least 70 Muslims were killed there, according to the Rev. Rigobert Dolongo who said he helped bury the bodies.

Muslims and Christians lived together in Carnot in relative peace for generations until a Muslim rebellion from the country's far north overthrew the government and unleashed total chaos. The rebels known as Seleka were blamed for scores of massacres on predominantly Christian villages across the country.

When they were forced from power in January, it unleashed a wave of violent vengeance against Muslims throughout the anarchic nation. In the capital, angry mobs killed and mutilated anyone suspected of having supported the Seleka. The Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka stormed Carnot in early February when the Seleka fled.

The situation in the capital, Bangui, appears to have stabilized somewhat, but the sectarian violence continues in the countryside.

Ahamat Mahamat, 41, narrowly escaped death and his younger brother was killed. Now he sits under the shade of a tree on the church grounds, his hand bandaged to cover his healing machete wounds meted by the Christian militia fighters.

Even as the brownish iodine oozes through his bandages, he vows to stay on in Carnot despite the threat and wants to return to his job photographing Muslim and Christian weddings. He himself is married to a Christian, who has fled to the church with him and their three children.

"I was born here. I grew up here. I have no problems with my neighbors. They even come to visit me here at the church and bring me food and other help," he says.

Others here, though, bitterly recall how the militiamen pillaged their mosques, stealing their prayer mats and setting their holy Qurans ablaze.

Marafa Abdulhamane, 73, wipes tears from his eyes when he recalls how they surrounded his home and ordered him to leave under threat of death. A native of Cameroon, he has lived in Carnot for 50 years. While some neighbors packed up his things that remained and brought them to him in a suitcase at the church compound, he's made up his mind to try and leave.

"My shop has been looted and my home has been taken over by Christians. Where will I go?" he says. "They say they don't want us wearing our traditional robes in town or saying 'Allah Akbar' anymore. It's as though they don't want Muslims or anything Islamic here anymore."

Now he sits near the steps of the church with his friends, stroking his prayer beads as the Catholic priests prepare the area for Sunday Mass. There is no longer a mosque to pray at. No announcement of the call to prayer. On the grounds of the church, the men kneel on rice sacks pointed toward Mecca and whisper their prayers.

He and his friends laugh when asked if they ever thought they would live at a church. However, they recognize the gravity of the situation that now faces them.

"If it weren't for the church and the peacekeepers, we'd all be dead," says Mahmoud Laminou, who has been here for two weeks.

About 150 of the refugees who could prove they had ties to Cameroon were evacuated though the rest still remain with no sign of when they might be rescued. As word spreads that the church is under armed protection, more arrive by the day.

On Monday, a truck with the African peacekeeping force delivered several Muslim families trapped inside the town and unable to reach the church except under armed escort. Trembling women handed their babies to people on the ground as they got down from the truck.

Worried parents forbid their children from playing soccer in the church yard, afraid that they would chase a ball outside and be killed by the surrounding gangs.

The priests here in Carnot have given away all their money to try and keep the anti-Balaka at bay. There are no aid groups here apart from a clinic operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders. The Catholic church, though, is pledging to continue its work here no matter what the personal risk.

"For us they are not Muslims or Christians. They are people — people in danger," says the Rev. Dieu-Seni Bikowo. "The anti-Balaka are not Christians. They are thieves who are profiting from the anger against Muslims."

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Follow Krista Larson at https://www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica .

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