Judicial authorities in Guinea are investigating an outburst of deadly violence two weeks ago that left 95 people dead and 130 wounded. The murder of a suspected thief on July 14 in Koulé, a city 40 kilometres from Nzérékoré, the regional capital of Forested Guinea, has led to acts of retaliation and a wave of violence between members of Guerzé and Konianké ethnic groups.
Very quickly, the incidents became a sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims, with the destruction of a number of Christians' properties, including several churches.
In Nzérékoré, about five churches, four houses of pastors, and an undetermined number of shops and properties were burned or looted, witnesses told World Watch Monitor. A mosque was also reported burned and one Muslim cleric killed. In Beyla city, 150 kilometres northeast of Nzérékoré, attacks targeting Christians were particularly violent, according to a Catholic priest contacted by World Watch Monitor.
"The two Catholic and Protestant churches have all been ransacked and burned," said the priest, identified as Fr. Joseph. "Almost all the houses and shops belonging to Christians or people affiliated with Christians, have not escaped the fury of attackers.''
The offices and other buildings within the Catholic compound, including the Presbyter and the nuns' quarters, were looted or burned.
Elsewhere in Beyla, the Center for Youth Development, an internet café, a conference room, a library and a primary school were ransacked.
The priest said a physician and Beyla's regional deputy of health services, Dr. Tolon Loua, was killed during the violence.
''He was inside of his house when the assailants arrived and set it on fire," he said. "Badly burned, he was transported to the hospital where he was later declared dead.''
An undetermined number of people remain missing. Several Christian families found refuge in military camps and surrounding villages. Churches and local NGOs are trying to place them with other families.
Similar acts of violence were reported in the neighbouring city of Moribadou, home to workers for the mining giant Rio Tinto, and in the city of Sinko. In total, some 10 churches were destroyed in that violence, which lasted nearly three days.
The violence has a strong religious dimension, said David Foromo Guilavogui, Secretary General of the Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Guinea. Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in southeastern Guinea, he told World Watch Monitor.
The inhabitants of Forested Guinea are mainly Christians or animists. Of the country's 10 million people, 85 per cent are Muslim. Christians represent 4 per cent and animists 11 per cent.
A number of Islamic fundamentalist groups are established in the southeast region, particularly in Beyla, a city perceived as a centre of Islam in Guinea. Beyla was one of the main cites of Wassoulou Empire, an Islamic state founded in the 17th century by Samori Touré, a military and political leader known for his opposition to the French colonial occupation. Today the city is 99 per cent Muslim, and Christians are a tiny minority of workers.
"These incidents have served as a pretext for Islamist groups to assert their opposition to the Christian presence," Guilavogui said.
The sectarian tension also has deep roots, he said. In 1991 more than 200 people were killed in post-electoral violence. It was followed by other deadly sectarian clashes, such as the bloody 2011 episode between Christians and Muslims in Galakpaye that killed at least 25 people.
"The problem is that each time a crisis breaks out, the authorities merely try to calm the tension without resolving its profound causes," Guilavogui said. ''Until past wounds are treated well, southeastern Guinea will not experience a lasting peace."
The region's isolation and poor roads haven't helped matters. Military reinforcements took two days to reach the scene of the fighting earlier this month.
Forested Guinea is a volatile area bordered by Sierra Leone and Liberia to the west, and the Ivory Coast to the east – each of which have waged civil wars during the last two decades. In addition to receiving an influx of refugees, the region served as a rear base for fighters, and the area remains thick with weapons.
Southeastern Guinea is rich with potential. It hosts the Simandou site, one of the world's richest iron deposits. In recent years, access to land has become a major source of tension between indigenous communities, the Guerzé, and members of Konianké ethnic group, who migrated from other regions.
Politicians play to these tensions, Guilavogui said.
"Politicians in search of votes tend to use the ethno-regionalist arguments," he said. "Such practice is amplifying divisions between communities. The current list of candidates for parliamentary elections due in three months, is an illustration.''
The challenge for Christians now, Guilavogui said, is to avoid continuing the cycle of violence.
"The pastors and bishops must preach a message of love based on God's Word," he said. "They must consider everyone on the same footing and encourage their followers to pardon sincerely." The inter-Christian Council of Guinea, which includes Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical churches, can serve as a framework in this effort of reconciliation, he said.