(RNS) African church leaders are urging parties in the South Sudanese conflict to respect places of worship, after rebels attacked and looted church compounds in the town of Malakal.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Malakal was looted at gunpoint, forcing priests and civilians to flee, a regional church leader said.
Catholic and Presbyterian churches, a hospital and an orphanage have become safe havens for refugees escaping the fighting in the city.
“I came to know myself what it means to be asked for something under the threat of a gun when a group in uniform stopped me on the way from the hospital to the church,” said one Catholic priest, who did not give his name because he fears for his safety. “They blocked me and took my watch and a key.”
The conflict began Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir alleged that his former deputy Riek Machar was planning a coup and arrested several senior politicians. (Seven of the 12 politicians arrested then were released Wednesday.) Since the conflict started, soldiers loyal to Kiir and rebels aligned with Machar have been engaged in bloody battles across the country.
The fighting has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Machar’s Nuer one.