When the killing reached Bossemptele, a small town deep in the isolated interior of the Central African Republic, Father Bernard Kinvi, who helps run the Catholic mission there, tried to save everyone he could. A handsome man of thirty-two, Father Bernard wears a black cassock with a large red cross imprinted on the chest. He was born in West Africa, in Togo, and when he left the seminary and came to the Central African Republic, four years ago, he knew little of his adopted country except that “it was a place of military crises.” Bossemptele, with its mission compound—a pretty little church, a modest school, and a rudimentary hospital—seemed like a peaceful place. Old shade trees lined the road, and wildflowers grew in the fields.Share
Until 1960, the Central African Republic was a French colony, known as Oubangui-Chari. It is rich in resources, with endless forests, gold, uranium, and oil, but it is among the world’s poorest countries. It is landlocked, largely undeveloped, and surrounded by other troubled nations: Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the two Congos, and Cameroon. Air France flies in once a week; few other airlines go there at all.
One of the country’s meagre blessings in the past several decades has been a relative lack of religious conflict. Of four and a half million citizens, fifteen per cent are Muslims; nearly all the rest profess some form of Christianity, often infused with animist beliefs. When Father Bernard arrived in Bossemptele, he detected no tensions between the Christians and the Muslims. “There were perfect community relations,” he told me, when I visited a few months ago. “Most of our hospital patients were Muslims, in fact.” Then, in 2012, he and the mission’s two other priests and four nuns began hearing reports about the Seleka, or “Alliance,” a Muslim rebel group in the east of the country. They were marching toward Bangui, the capital, a hundred and ninety miles away. “We weren’t affected,” Bernard said, speaking as someone in Tennessee might speak of a tornado in Oklahoma—a concern, but not a threat. “Then they started coming this way.” (Read more.)