Clergy take a moral stand in Central African Republic conflict

Catholic churchmen are being praised for showing ‘courage and leadership’ in protecting Muslims

Kapiri Agnes (53) prepares a meal on the grounds of a church that is sheltering about 4,000 internally displaced people fleeing sectarian violence in Bangui. Central Africans say Christians and Muslims lived in harmony until last year. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

Kapiri Agnes (53) prepares a meal on the grounds of a church that is sheltering about 4,000 internally displaced people fleeing sectarian violence in Bangui. Central Africans say Christians and Muslims lived in harmony until last year. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

Thu, Apr 3, 2014, 01:00

At this juncture, after thousands have died and a million people have been driven from their homes, Central Africans tell you that Christians and Muslims lived in harmony until last year. They claim Muslims celebrated Christmas and joined Assumption Day processions, that Muslims shared their Eid feast with Christian neighbours.

How was this harmony so quickly shattered? December 2012, when the newly formed Seleka militia killed a gendarme, burned a church and murdered dozens of Christians in the northern province of Bamingui-Bangoran, was the turning point, according to Christians.

Muslims say former president François Bozizé, a Christian who was deposed by the Muslim Seleka leader Michel Djotodia in March last year, fanned hatred against Muslims in radio speeches. Raids on Christian neighbourhoods by Muslims from the north revived atavistic memories of Arab slave traders, who for centuries preyed on black Africans.


Merchant class
Before this conflict, Muslims constituted the merchant class. Yet they were in many ways second-class citizens, not unlike Jews in medieval Europe. High political office, the civil service and army were the preserve of Christians. The government did not invest a penny in the Muslim northeast.

Though they were born in CAR, residents of Chadian and Sudanese origin were often denied identity papers by the Bangui government.

During his nine-month reign of terror, Djotodia handed out CAR passports to virtually any Muslim. Citizenship and the treatment of “foreigners” remains a burning issue.

Anti-Muslim prejudice is strong even among educated Christians. “Muslim merchants are shady. They like corrupting people. They don’t want to pay the taxes they’re supposed to,” said Bruno Hyacinthe Gbiegba, a lawyer who calls himself a human rights defender.

Central Africans seem to have lost their moral bearings. Before he was arrested, “mad dog”, the Christian who twice ate the severed limbs of freshly lynched Muslims for vengeance, became something of a folk hero.

“I saw a crowd in front of the Telecel office one day,” a French resident of the capital recounts. “The Christians of Bangui were taking ‘selfies’ of themselves with the cannibal.”

Yet I twice met Evangelical Christians who told me they forgave the Muslims who wounded or killed close relatives. The country’s religious leaders – who never cease preaching peace and reconciliation – remain popular.

Le Monde newspaper called Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Catholic archbishop of Bangui, Imam Omar Kobine Layama, the head of the Islamic conference, and Elim Bangui-M’Poko, who represents the Protestant church, “the three saints of Bangui”.


Attacked Bangui
When the Christian anti-balaka attacked Bangui in December, Archbishop Dieudonné telephoned Imam Omar to say he was sending African peacekeepers to fetch him.

The imam, his wife and children still live with the archbishop, along with three other Muslim families from the provincial town of Bossembele.

Archbishop Dieudonné refuses to consider the anti-balaka Christian. “They don’t teach them the Bible,” he says. “They give them amulets [magic charms]. They are not motivated by religion.”

Had religion not been used to polarise people, the archbishop continues, “We would not have come to this”. But religion, he maintains, is not the real cause of the war. “It’s poverty, our rudderless youth. There’s no school, nothing to look forward to, so they end up in the Seleka or the anti-balaka, because they want to get a little money quickly. All the prisons were broken open in the war. Hardened criminals are in the streets, training the young and using them as cannon fodder.”


Muslim refugees
At one point, 12,000 Muslim refugees camped around the archbishop’s Church of Saint Paul, another 10,000 around Rev Elim’s church. They have since been evacuated to neighbouring countries; the peacekeepers who escorted them unwilling partners in their ethnic cleansing.

In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post , Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch wrote that “the Catholics’ humanity, courage and leadership stand out amid the slaughter. They are virtually alone in trying to protect the vulnerable.” The efforts of the international community to protect civilians “pale next to the bravery exhibited by these clergy”, Bouckaert commented.


Greatest hero
Perhaps the greatest hero of the war is a simple parish priest from Boali, north of Bangui, Xavier-Arnauld Fagba.

As the anti-balaka offensive gained momentum, shortly after Fr Xavier’s ordination, he gathered up frightened Muslims to shelter them in his church. Some 650 stayed for six weeks.

The Muslims of Boali held Friday prayers on the church grounds, and cleaned the sanctuary on Sunday mornings before services.

When the anti-balaka sent a death squad to kill him, Fr Xavier got out of his car and stared them down. “I was threatened several times,” he told me. “In the beginning, I was afraid. Once I started, I felt a certain force in me, protecting me.”

In February, the militia fired dozens of bullets through the church walls. The priest and his Muslim protégés threw themselves to the ground. No one was hurt.

Fr Xavier tried to initiate a process of reconciliation, by placing several Muslim families with non-Muslim households in Boali. But on March 1st, a convoy protected by African peacekeepers came through, carrying Muslims to neighbouring Cameroon.

“The lorries tooted their horns, and the Muslims rushed out. I was touched because they came to me and said, ‘Abbé, abbé, merci abbé’. I miss them terribly.”

Today, Boali and the surrounding region are a Muslim-free zone. Has evil not triumphed? I ask Fr Xavier. “Evil never triumphs,” the young priest insists. “The Muslims of Boali were terrified. They had no peace in their hearts. Their departure was a relief to them.”


Fiercely criticised
When CAR’s interim president Catherine Samba-Panza recently criticised the excesses of the anti-balaka, she was fiercely criticised by her fellow Christians, some of whom accused her of being a Muslim-lover.

Yet Fr Xavier would like Samba Panza and other officials to be more courageous.

“To stop making speeches and act. We need concrete acts which prove they want Muslims and Christians to live together. When the convoys evacuated Muslims, our officials should have gone to the border and begged them not to leave.

“Bringing them back will be much more difficult.”

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