Small children and women in colourful headscarves cluster around the altar, bundles of their belongings piled high near a statue of the Virgin Mary.

In the Central African town of Boali, the local church has become a refuge for some 700 Muslims fleeing a flare-up in sectarian violence, part of a nationwide wave of unrest unleashed by a coup last March.

"Boali the resplendent welcomes you" reads a sign at the entrance to the town, famed for its waterfalls around 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the capital Bangui.

A few metres into town, Saint-Peter's parish offers a potent symbol of a country-wide tragedy: fear and hatred pitting Christian against Muslim, neighbour against neighbour, alleviated here and there by lone acts of kindness.

No one knows for sure what touched off the fighting last Friday, but it has left at least seven people dead -- six Muslims and one Christian -- and several homes in ruins.

Here, like elsewhere, the arrival of French troops charged with disarming the Muslim fighters terrorising the mostly-Christian country, has left Muslim civilians exposed to reprisals.

But the French troops says the violence was already raging when they reached the town.

As panic gripped the population, the abbot, Xavier Fagba, and his deacon, Boris Wiligale, threw open the doors of their church to hundreds of Muslims, many of them members of the semi-nomadic Fula community.

For Sunday mass

Some 700 civilians, most of them women and children, have spent two nights under the church's corrugated-iron roof, guarded by around 70 troops from the 1,600-strong French force in the country.

For Sunday mass, the Muslims stepped outside to make way for parishioners come to worship.

"We must stop causing people pain," pleaded the abbot in his sermon, urging the faithful to step out and greet their Muslim neighbours with a traditional Christian "kiss of peace".

At the end of the service, Jean-Claude, a Christian, walks up to Ahmad, a Muslim neighbour he has known for years, hugging him gently around the shoulders.

"You need to be strong," he says. "Stay positive."

Ahmad's house is one of those destroyed in the violence of recent days.

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