NAIROBI, Kenya — Former members of a Muslim militia killed at least 16 people in an attack on a church in the Central African Republic, raising fears that ongoing violence could return to the capital city.
Notre Dame of Fatima, a Roman Catholic church in the capital, Bangui, was attacked Tuesday morning with grenades and gunfire by men allied with a rebel group once known as Seleka, an Islamic faction whose takeover of Bangui five years ago set off the country’s continuing conflict.
Several thousand worshipers were at the church at the time, said Kessy Ekomo-Soignet, a grass-roots activist who runs a youth program in Bangui. The church’s priest, the Rev. Toungoumale Baba, was among the dead. To protest the violence, a large crowd carried Father Baba’s body to the presidential palace, witnesses said.
United Nations peacekeeping officials in Bangui said the attack had followed the arrest of a member of a “criminal group” associated with the former rebel group.
The violence comes three weeks after United Nations troops and national security forces started a security operation in a district known as PK5. The predominantly Muslim neighborhood, which borders the church attacked on Tuesday, is also home to many ex-Seleka rebels; United Nations officials said the former rebels had regrouped into “criminal gangs,” threatening to destabilize the city.
Observers said the assault on the church was most likely in retaliation for the security operation.
“There were several dead on the Muslim side” in the early days of the operation, said Teddy Junior Magbe, country director for Search for Common Ground, an international peace-building organization. “On the day of burial, they warned they were going to take revenge.”
Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who specializes in the Central African Republic, said roughly 75 percent of the country was controlled by armed groups. Violence has been escalating nationwide since February, largely because earlier peace efforts failed to disarm militia groups, he said.
Former Seleka members have also been threatening to march on the capital. Local activists said they worried that the attack on Tuesday might signal the start of a new wave of instability.
The church attack also set off retaliatory violence in Bangui on Tuesday. Vladimir Monteiro, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in the country, said an “angry mob” had attacked several mosques, injured people on the streets, and damaged United Nations vehicles that were patrolling the city. A United Nations soldier was also injured, he said.
It was the second time in four years that Notre Dame of Fatima has become a symbol of the violence that has cleaved the country, often along religious lines. In 2014, Seleka rebels followed the same pattern, first throwing grenades and then opening fire indiscriminately, targeting people who had sought protection at the church from ongoing clashes.
The ensuing violence has often followed a cycle of revenge attacks between religious communities, but local activists and international observers say that armed actors are manipulating religious identities for their own purposes.
“This is not a religious conflict as such,” said Mr. Mudge, the Human Rights Watch researcher. “Muslims and Christians have lived together there for generations.”
“This is about political leaders who never saw fit to create a functioning state, and who instead benefited from disorder,” he added.
At the same time, Ms. Ekomo-Soignet said, social media — particularly Facebook — has become a hotbed of hate speech, often expressed in religious terms, that is having dangerous consequences offline.
“You’ll see people writing, ‘We have to get revenge, we have to kill them all,’ and people will like and like and like those,” she said. “Then they meet at a bar somewhere in the city and they talk it all through again. It really feeds the perception of one group about the other.”
“After an attack, then you see people say, ‘I told you so. I told you we need to kill them, to get them first,’ ” she added. “We’re pretty sure there will be more revenge.”