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The French Parliament voted earlier this week to keep its peacekeeping troops in its former colony Central African Republic. Sectarian violence there has displaced an estimated one million people. The intervention by France was supposed to last only a few months. But as the French defense minister admitted, on a visit to CAR this month, the level of hatred and violence is worse than we imagined. And a warning: The story we're about to hear does include a short description of some of that violence.
NPR's Gregory Warner takes us to the town of Bouar, where he found if you scratch beneath the surface of religious hatred, you'll find a battle over the country's riches.
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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: A choir opens up a recent Sunday Mass at the Infant Jesus Catholic Church in the town of Bouar. But Father Dominic Mbarta is feeling nervous about his sermon, on a previous Sunday, when a Polish priest at this church simply asked the congregation to refrain from killing their Muslim neighbors or looting abandoned Muslim houses.
FATHER DOMINIC MBARTA: They were so angry and they went back grumbling against the priest, that the priest is not impartial. He is for the Muslims. He is not for the Christians.
WARNER: Father Dominic, who's Central African, sits down after services in the empty church. Across town from where we're sitting is a mosque where thousands of Muslims are pinned down, unable to move outside a small radius or risk being macheted in the street. Father Dominic says in this climate it's too soon to preach forgiveness.
MBARTA: Why? Because people are still hot, people are still living in total anger.
WARNER: The Central African Republic is a majority Christian country. After a coup last year by Muslim-led militia Christian civilians became the targets. For months last year, mostly Muslim fighters marauded across the country on a criminal spree of arson and murder. And while many of those attackers were actually foreigners, mercenaries from Muslim Chad and Sudan, people here accuse their Muslim neighbors of aiding the invaders.
MBARTA: And how can we talk about forgiveness and reconciliation where there is no justice?
WARNER: Now that Muslims are targets in the Central African Republic, it's usually explained like this: It's a collective spasm of revenge. But Father Dominic says there is a deeper reason, it's one though he can't show me in this public church.
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WARNER: So we go to my hotel room. Father Dominic has brought along a scruffy looking guy named Joseph Baba, who wears a thick coat despite the equatorial heat. From the pocket of that coat emerges a square of pink tissue paper. Unfolded, it reveals six uncut diamonds.
MBARTA: You understand what I'm talking about now. You understand why there is so many war in this country.
WARNER: Since independence this country has had a series of coups and battles for control over the country's rich deposits of diamonds and gold. But through all the decades of political upheaval, most of the traders of these jewels were Muslim. There's been growing resentment of the middlemen traders by the mostly Christian miners. It's resentment that Dominic absorbed as a child. His father was one of those villagers who panned gold from the rivers.
MBARTA: The Muslim can exploit the situation and become richer and richer, while the miner become poorer and poorer.
WARNER: Listening to Father Dominic's rant, I get that same sinking feeling that I've had talking to other Christians here who condemn the violence, but inwardly cheer what they see as liberation.
MBARTA: Central Africans are feeling liberated from some burden. We don't want to be slaves of a black, like us.
WARNER: You don't want to be slaves of a black like us.
MBARTA: OK, black like that, exactly.
WARNER: This xenophobic nationalism has given license to an unimaginable level of brutality. A 19-year-old Muslim named Ismaela Hibrahim survived a massacre at Yaloke, it's a major gold trading area once home to some 10,000 Muslims. I met him in hiding at the local mosque in Bouar. He explained that the Christian militias called anti-Balaka first silently surrounded the town, and then they gave a war cry.
ISMAELA HIBRAHIM: (Through translator) They kill anybody. They kill one wife, she was pregnant. Like a surgeon, they take out the baby and they killed the baby also.
WARNER: A small armed resistance by Muslims was overpowered. And then after the militiamen came through, their wives followed to ransack the houses.
HIBRAHIM: (Through translator) They just kill, kill. And then their wives and their younger bro came, and they started to check each house in order to pick up everything good.
WARNER: Economic resentment, of course, has been seen before as one rationale for ethnic cleansing. It was raised in Rwanda in 1994 and in the pogroms in Russia in 1884.
But Father Dominic says villagers in the Central African Republic right now are hoarding their scavenged diamonds and gold, because their buyers have gone. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled. And he worries that this climate of insecurity and economic paralysis will provide an opportunity for another wave of violence, not just between Christian and Muslim but between tribe and tribe, militia versus militia.
MBARTA: And then there is risk of civil war in the future.
WARNER: Gregory Warner, NPR News.
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