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.”