A Roman Catholic archbishop in the Central African Republic grappled with a knife-wielding militiaman who was threatening to kill a Muslim child, according to eye-witnesses of the incident Sunday. Outnumbered and unarmed, the archbishop of Bangui and his medical team held off what was described as a bloodthirsty mob until the sick girl and her parents could be driven to safety.
Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga had spent four days with his medical team giving free care to hundreds of people in villages around the town of Yaloke, about 225 kilometers from Bangui.
One of the settlements was predominantly Peul - a Muslim ethnic group that has sided with the Seleka rebels in the past two years of conflict. The Peul community has been a frequent target of the mostly Christian anti-balaka militia.
While in the village, the archbishop and his team decided to take a sick eight-year-old girl, with her parents, to Bangui to be treated at the hospital.
Although the team had the protection of U.N. peacekeepers in the villages, their travel to and from Bangui was without any kind of military escort.
Returning to Bangui, the archbishop and his team were stopped by the anti-balaka at a roadblock 26 kilometers north of Bangui.
A doctor with the team, Elkana Ndawatcha, told VOA what happened next.
“The anti-balaka had a grenade and they threatened to throw it at our cars" if the group tried to leave. “They also had knives," he said, and they dragged a Peul out of one of the cars and were going to kill him.
Ndawatcha says Archbishop Nzapalainga intervened and grabbed the arm of a man who was about to draw a knife. The man pulled out the knife and the archbishop was left holding the sheath.
The doctor said that the eight people with the archbishop had to argue and fight with the 10 anti-balaka for 15 minutes before they could get away.
He said finally they got the Peuls back into the car and fled with them in two vehicles, while the archbishop stayed behind with the other two cars and restrained the anti-balaka.
A local journalist, who also witnessed the incident, Jovis Ouakara, confirmed the account. The sick girl made it to the archbishop’s house and was transferred to a hospital.
Ndawatcha said the incident happened next to a roadblock manned by Central African police, or gendarmes.
He said they were "about 15 meters from a gendarmerie roadblock but none of the gendarmes intervened to help."
Many observers have questioned the neutrality of the Central African security forces in the CAR’s sectarian conflict.
The Catholic Church is one of the few organizations still providing any medical aid in the villages of the CAR, and its teams often face harassment from armed groups.
Commenting on the Sunday incident, missionary Father Patrick Mbea - head of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit in the CAR - says this conflict is not one of religion because the actions of the anti-balaka can in no way be described as Christian.