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
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.
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”.
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.”