The Catholic Church in the Central African Republic is in mourning after the Vicar General of Bambari, Mgr Firmin Gbagoua, was murdered last Friday.
Father Firmin Gbagoua was killed on Friday evening 29th June while he was eating dinner. Reports state that he was shot several times in the stomach at close range by members of the militia calling itself the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC). Fr Gbagoua died later in hospital. He is the third priest to have been killed in the country this year.
A Church source told Fides: "Monsignor Firmin was a key person in all the mediation processes to try and keep the peace in Bambari, and was therefore known by everyone. His assassins cannot say they killed a person they did not know."
"Mgr Firmin was an extraordinary priest. A simple and very humble person, who was close to adults as well as the little ones, and above all he was a man who told the truth, who was able to make a very clear analysis of the situation."
In a statement sent to Aid to the Church in Need, the Central African Bishops' Conference (ECSC) spoke of their "great bitterness" upon learning of the assassination of Father Gbagoua.
They went on to strongly condemn the killings of priests which have occurred recently in the Central African Republic. ECSC stated: "We strongly call on the government and MINUSCA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic] to coordinate their efforts so that those responsible for these murders will be arrested and brought to justice."
They added: "Who does all this violence against the Catholic Church of Central Africa benefit?"
The UPC, which carried out the murder, is one of the militias groups that were formed following the break up of Séléka in 2014.
As tensions have steadily increased in the country, the Church has called for calm and urged Christians not to retaliate against members of the Muslim community - UPC members come from the Islamic Fulani ethnic group.
"We urge the entire Christian community to remain calm and in prayer so as not to fall into the trap of those who want to show that Christians and Muslims can no longer live together in order to partition the Central African nation."
Fides reports that several priests who have been engaged in dialogue to promote peace, have been targeted.
"In recent months, all the priests who have been killed or attacked are inconvenient for those who want to destabilize Central Africa. In January they tried to kill Fr Alain Blaise Bissialo, parish priest of Christ the King parish of Tokoyo and president of the Bangassou Peace and Mediation Committee, in the south-east of the country.
In April, Fr Joseph Désiré Angbabata was killed, along with some faithful in the assault on his parish in Séko, a village 60 km from Bambari."
A few months before his death, Fr Joseph had been appointed president of the Justice and Peace Commission of Bangui.
"For a year or so the authorities and the UN had said that Bambari was an unarmed city ("Une ville sans armes"), but this was never true", Fides sources commented. "After the attack that the city had suffered in May, Mgr Firmin had denounced the fact that weapons were still in Bambari, hidden in houses, and that armed robberies were taking place every day.
Some districts of the city are controlled by armed groups, close to Seleka, who call themselves Mujaheddin.
"The killing of Mgr Firmin increases the feeling of insecurity", the source said. "The commando of assassins managed to enter the Episcopate while a Gabonese contingent of MINUSCA (UN Mission in Central Africa) was a few hundred metres away. The assassins injured the guard and mortally hit the Vicar General and then managed to escape, before the arrival of the Blue Helmets."The impression is that there are forces that want to make Central Africa fall back into a sectarian conflict... In Central Africa, France, the US, Russia, China and some Arab states confront each other not only to control our country but all of Central Africa," the sources conclude.
There have been a number of recent outbreaks of violence in the country.
Over the weekend that the killing occurred, there were also reports of fighting between ex-Séléka groups and Anti-balaka militias in the Kaga-Bandoro region.
A number of houses were torched during the skirmishes.