Bishop welcomes arrival of foreign troops in Central African Republic

The new wave of foreign peacekeepers has been welcomed by Christians in conflict-torn Central African Republic.

Spanish missionary Bishop Juan-José Aguirre Muñoz of Bangassou has said that the Séléka Islamist rebel coalition now seems to be "on the run" in the country's capital Bangui, as they fight local citizens who are defending their properties from looting.

This was also confirmed by AFP, which has seen several Séléka fighters leave the capital under cover of darkness.

On Monday, some 200 French and Congolese troops arrived, with 700 more expected soon. This is in addition to 400 French troops who were already there to protect French nationals, and approximately 2,500 African Union troops already in the country, which will be increased to 3,600 by January 2014.

Bishops have been key figures in many stages of the conflict, with the Bishop of Bambari, Mgr Edouard Mathos appealing to the French and the broader international community for help in late November, and Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo Aziagbia of Bossangoa overseeing the care of more than 35,000 people displaced by the conflict, while they stay on the 40-acre diocesan compound in Bossangoa.

"The priests have been sharing their rooms in their private apartments," said Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo Aziagbia of Bossangoa, reports the Catholic Herald.

"The only place that has not been used is my private apartment."

Most of the people staying there are women and children. To protect their families, men move elsewhere, fearing they will be targeted by rebel soldiers.

Bishop Muñoz told Catholic World News about a similar situation in the northern diocese of Bouca: "Several thousand people, mostly Christians, are still refugees in the Catholic missions. In Bouca for example, 30,000 people have found shelter in the Catholic mission, while Muslims do not leave their neighbourhood. The displaced are living in fear and suffer from lack of food and medicines."

The Central African Republic is a country of 5.1 million people, whose religious demography is approximately 25 per cent Catholic, 25 per cent Protestant, and 15 per cent Muslim, with the remaining 35% adhering to indigenous belief systems.

After Michel Djotodia's coup (making him the first leader from the minority Muslim population) lead to Islamic-Christian sectarian violence, he attempted to disband the Séléka alliance that brought him to power. However he retains little control over the armed group, and so violence continues in many parts of the country.

The UN is discussing this week the prospect of assuming overall collective authority for the future operation of the ongoing peacekeeping mission.

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