By Cécile Feuillatre
Boali (Central African Republic) (AFP) – Small children and women in colourful headscarves cluster around the altar, bundles of their belongings piled high near a statue of the Virgin Mary.
In the Central African town of Boali, the local church has become a refuge for some 700 Muslims fleeing a flare-up in sectarian violence, part of a nationwide wave of unrest unleashed by a coup last March.
“Boali the resplendent welcomes you” reads a sign at the entrance to the town, famed for its waterfalls around 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the capital Bangui.
A few metres into town, Saint-Peter’s parish offers a potent symbol of a country-wide tragedy: fear and hatred pitting Christian against Muslim, neighbour against neighbour, alleviated here and there by lone acts of kindness.
No one knows for sure what touched off the fighting last Friday, but it has left at least seven people dead — six Muslims and one Christian — and several homes in ruins.
Here, like elsewhere, the arrival of French troops charged with disarming the Muslim fighters terrorising the mostly-Christian country, has left Muslim civilians exposed to reprisals.
But the French troops says the violence was already raging when they reached the town.
As panic gripped the population, the abbot, Xavier Fagba, and his deacon, Boris Wiligale, threw open the doors of their church to hundreds of Muslims, many of them members of the semi-nomadic Fula community.
Some 700 civilians, most of them women and children, have spent two nights under the church’s corrugated-iron roof, guarded by around 70 troops from the 1,600-strong French force in the country.
For Sunday mass, the Muslims stepped outside to make way for parishioners come to worship.
“We must stop causing people pain,” pleaded the abbot in his sermon, urging the faithful to step out and greet their Muslim neighbours with a traditional Christian “kiss of peace”.
At the end of the service, Jean-Claude, a Christian, walks up to Ahmad, a Muslim neighbour he has known for years, hugging him gently around the shoulders.
“You need to be strong,” he says. “Stay positive.”
Ahmad’s house is one of those destroyed in the violence of recent days.
“There are people here who are good to us,” he says. “But we can’t stay here any longer. We have to leave. I want to go to Bangui, at least there is still some safety there.”
By his side, Oumar Abba, a Muslim scholar, says he hopes to find safety in neighbouring Cameroon, which is predominantly Christian but home to a large Muslim minority.
“This is no longer a political war here. It is a religious war now,” he says.
‘We need trucks to evacuate these people’
After mass, the Muslim refugees head back into the shade of the church, settling along its pews on or mats rolled out on the ground.
Fatma Oumara, whose husband was killed a few days back in a town just to the north, fled here with her eight children.
She, too, hopes to take her young family to Cameroon. For now she closes her eyes and lies down on her mat, exhausted.
In a corner of the Church, the deacon is sharing a meal with a group of Muslims.
But despite the gestures of goodwill, it is clear the Muslim refugees are not welcome in the town — and potentially in grave danger.
Benedicte, a local hairdresser, explains how “We have no problem getting along with Muslims, we just want them to go home.”
“The people of Boali suffered so badly under the Seleka rebels, they feel a lot of resentment towards Muslims,” admitted the abbot.
“What we need now are trucks to evacuate all these people. It’s urgent,” said the abbot. “Because if the French leave, we just don’t know what could happen.”
Travelling alone is impossible for the Muslim refugees, with Christian militiamen manning improvised checkpoints along the country’s roads.
For now, the French troops are staying put, says a lieutenant on site. But time is ticking.
An old man in front of the church pleaded, simply: “Do something to get us out of here.”