Muslims seek refuge in C. African Republic church

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In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, Muslim men, left, seeking refuge in a Catholic church, look on as a Catholic church service takes place in Carnot a town 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border, in, Central African Republic. The Christian militiamen knew hundreds of Muslims were hiding at the Catholic church and came with their ultimatum: Evict the families to face certain death or else the entire place would be burned to the ground. (AP Photo/Krista Larson)

In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, Muslim men, left, seeking refuge in a Catholic church, look on as a Catholic church service takes place in Carnot a town 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border, in, Central African Republic. The Christian militiamen knew hundreds of Muslims were hiding at the Catholic church and came with their ultimatum: Evict the families to face certain death or else the entire place would be burned to the ground. (AP Photo/Krista Larson)

In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, Muslims pray as they hide at a Catholic church in Carnot a town 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border, in, Central African Republic. The Christian militiamen knew hundreds of Muslims were hiding at the Catholic church and came with their ultimatum: Evict the families to face certain death or else the entire place would be burned to the ground. (AP Photo/Krista Larson)

In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, A Muslim man reads religions script at a Catholic church in Carnot a town 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border, in, Central African Republic. The Christian militiamen knew hundreds of Muslims were hiding at the Catholic church and came with their ultimatum: Evict the families to face certain death or else the entire place would be burned to the ground. (AP Photo/Steve Niko)

In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, Father Justin Nary, left, greets Ousmane Mahamat, one of the 800 Muslims seeking refuge in a Catholic church in Carnot a town 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border, in, Central African Republic. The Christian militiamen knew hundreds of Muslims were hiding at the Catholic church and came with their ultimatum: Evict the families to face certain death or else the entire place would be burned to the ground. (AP Photo/Krista Larson)

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CARNOT, Central African Republic (AP) — The Christian militiamen know hundreds of Muslims are hiding here on the grounds of the Catholic church and now they’re giving them a final ultimatum: Leave Central African Republic within a week or face death at the hands of machete-wielding youths.

On Monday, some of the 30 Cameroonian peacekeepers fired into the air to disperse angry militia fighters congregated outside the concrete walls of the church compound. The gunfire sent traumatized children running for cover and set off a chorus of wails throughout the courtyard.

The peacekeepers are all that stand between nearly 800 Muslims and the armed gangs who want them dead. Already the fighters known as the anti-Balaka have brought 40 liters (10 gallons) of gasoline and threatened to burn the church to the ground.

Even the Rev. Justin Nary, who takes in more Muslims by the day, knows he too is a marked man in the eyes of anti-Balaka.

“Walking through town I’ve had guns pointed in my face four times,” he says. “They call my phone and say they’ll kill me once the peacekeepers are gone.”

Some of those seeking refuge fled from the village of Guen, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) away, after at least 70 Muslims were killed there, according to the Rev. Rigobert Dolongo who said he helped bury the bodies.

Muslims and Christians lived together in Carnot in relative peace for generations until a Muslim rebellion from the country’s far north overthrew the government and unleashed total chaos. The rebels known as Seleka were blamed for scores of massacres on predominantly Christian villages across the country.

When they were forced from power in January, it unleashed a wave of violent vengeance against Muslims throughout the anarchic nation. In the capital, angry mobs killed and mutilated anyone suspected of having supported the Seleka. The Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka stormed Carnot in early February when the Seleka fled.

The situation in the capital, Bangui, appears to have stabilized somewhat, but the sectarian violence continues in the countryside.

Ahamat Mahamat, 41, narrowly escaped death and his younger brother was killed. Now he sits under the shade of a tree on the church grounds, his hand bandaged to cover his healing machete wounds meted by the Christian militia fighters.

Even as the brownish iodine oozes through his bandages, he vows to stay on in Carnot despite the threat and wants to return to his job photographing Muslim and Christian weddings. He himself is married to a Christian, who has fled to the church with him and their three children.

“I was born here. I grew up here. I have no problems with my neighbors. They even come to visit me here at the church and bring me food and other help,” he says.

Others here, though, bitterly recall how the militiamen pillaged their mosques, stealing their prayer mats and setting their holy Qurans ablaze.

Marafa Abdulhamane, 73, wipes tears from his eyes when he recalls how they surrounded his home and ordered him to leave under threat of death. A native of Cameroon, he has lived in Carnot for 50 years. While some neighbors packed up his things that remained and brought them to him in a suitcase at the church compound, he’s made up his mind to try and leave.

“My shop has been looted and my home has been taken over by Christians. Where will I go?” he says. “They say they don’t want us wearing our traditional robes in town or saying ‘Allah Akbar’ anymore. It’s as though they don’t want Muslims

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