Muslims in Central Africa 'forced to abandon religion': Amnesty

LIBREVILLE (AFP) - Many Muslims returning to western areas of the Central African Republic (CAR) after last year's intercommunal massacres are being threatened and "forced to abandon their religion," Amnesty International said Friday.

"Having forced tens of thousands of Muslims to flee western CAR, anti-balaka militias are now repressing the religious identity of the hundreds of Muslims who remained or who have returned," said Joanne Mariner, the London-based rights group's senior crisis response adviser.

Thousands died in violence and hundreds of thousands remain displaced from their homes following a March 2013 coup.

Atrocities committed by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels led to reprisals by vigilantes, so-called anti-balaka, from the Christian majority.

The Amnesty report, entitled "Erased identity: Muslims in ethnically cleansed areas of the Central African Republic," said that Muslims who have returned to their homes in large swathes of the west of the country following the 2014 killing spree and mass forced displacement "are barred by armed anti-balaka militia from practising or manifesting their religion in public."

Some "have been forcibly converted to Christianity on the threat of death," the report added.

"In areas where UN peacekeepers remain notable by their absence, Muslims are targeted with impunity," Amnesty asserted.

A 23-year-old former Muslim in the Sangha-Mbaere prefecture told Amnesty International: "We had no choice but to join the Catholic Church. The anti-balaka swore they'd kill us if we didn't."

Amnesty said that outside of areas where Muslims live under the protection of UN peacekeepers, Muslims in the western areas "have no freedom to practise their religion in public.

Prayers are effectively banned, traditional Muslim clothing cannot be freely worn, and the reconstruction of mosques, an estimated 400 of which were destroyed across the country, is not allowed."

"It is effectively illegal for us to pray," said a Muslim trader in Mbaiki in the south-west. "We have to hide, do it quickly, and do it by ourselves. Collective Friday prayers are impossible."

Amnesty called on the government in Bangui, the UN mission to the country, and the international community "to support Muslims' efforts to reintegrate into towns and villages across western CAR, and to strengthen the presence of peacekeeping forces to better protect communities from anti-balaka militias."