Catholic leaders in the Central African Republic said their help for Muslim rebels is part of an effort to promote interreligious reconciliation in the war-torn country.
"We're ready to assist everyone in difficulty, whatever their faith or affiliation," said Msgr. Elysee Guedjande, national director of the church's Caritas aid organization.
"The two main fronts aren't only military forces -- they also consist of uprooted and dispossessed people who need to be listened to. The church will come to their aid where it can."
The priest talked to Catholic News Service after accompanying Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga, president of the bishops' conference, on a visit to barracks housing fighters from the Muslim-dominated Seleka rebel movement with their families in the capital, Bangui.
In a Dec. 31 interview, he said the visit was requested by Seleka, whose forces were declared disbanded in September 2013 but have continued attacking civilian targets, including Christian churches.
"People are tired of conflict here, and the Seleka leadership now favors conciliatory initiatives like this," Guedjande said. "We sense a social coalition for peace is forming now, and we're trying to find partners who'll give this concrete shape through mutual support and understanding."
Church leaders have repeatedly denied media claims of a Christian-Muslim division in the Central African Republic, where Seleka, led by Arab-speaking Islamists, suspended the constitution in March 2013 but was driven back after the January 2014 deployment of French and African peacekeepers.
In a Dec. 1 message, the bishops' conference said armed groups were still "occupying the national scene" and forcing people to flee to makeshift camps in Bangui, Bambari and other towns, despite a July peace accord between Seleka and its mainly Christian rival, known as Anti-Balaka.
It added that it was worried about the spread of banditry in the Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries, by dispersed groups that "seem to have fun scattering weapons among the population."
Speaking after taking food, clothing and medicine to Seleka fighters Dec. 26, Nzapalainga said he had spent two hours listening to "aggressive complaints in a cordial climate," and now hoped to "promote a great debate on social cohesion" between Muslim and Christian militants.
"I took time to hear their grievances, since they've said many times that no one is coming to see them," the archbishop told Radio France International.
"The point is to allow the masks to fall and see them as something other than wild beasts. These are human beings, and I think they'll now get some answers."
Guedjande told Catholic News Service the church, whose nine dioceses make up a third of the country's 4.4 inhabitants, had found itself "in the midst of a population uprooted and deprived," and was determined to reach out to all sides.
He added that Nzapalainga had also visited displaced people linked to Anti-Balaka Dec. 29-30 on the border between the Bangui and Bossangoa dioceses; their homes had recently been burned.
"He believes the Gospel message can overcome discontent and distrust, because it shows how egotistic impulses can give way to community interests," said the priest, who was partially paralyzed when shot in the leg by Seleka soldiers in July 2013. "This is what the church is trying to do here with both Seleka and Anti-Balaka."
Guedjande said he thought the government should be doing more to promote political solutions and improve living conditions for those displaced by the two-year conflict.
He said Nzapalainga was "working closely to rebuild community life" with Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the nation's Islamic community, but said the Catholic church was not attempting to replace the government in its peace efforts.
"But the government must also find courage to go further in its own endeavors. If this happens, I think we can be full of hope for the new year," he said.