BANGUI, Central African Republic — “Forgotten and overlooked” — those two Christmas Day words from Pope Francis describe the plight of the Central African Republic (CAR), an African nation where newly enkindled religious hatreds threaten even greater bloodsheds and the specter of the Rwandan genocide.
The ever-worsening spiral of human butchery and barbarism between Muslims and Christians in the CAR was singled out by the Holy Father in his first Christmas address and blessing urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and the world).
“Grant peace to the Central African Republic, often forgotten and overlooked. Yet you, Lord, forget no one,” Pope Francis said. “And you also want to bring peace to that land, torn apart by a spiral of violence and poverty, where so many people are homeless, lacking water, food and the bare necessities of life.”
The fighting in the CAR has shattered the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims, who comprise approximately 80% and 15% of the population, respectively, as the original political conflict has devolved into religious strife.
“It started off purely as a conflict over political power and access to resources,” said Stephen Hilbert, policy expert for Africa in the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace. He added that religious-based conflict is completely new in CAR and is an unforeseen consequence set in motion by the current ruling coalition’s decision to achieve their goals via a military solution.
Hilbert explained that opposition parties known as the Séléka alliance brought in Muslim militia from Sudan, Darfur and neighboring Chad to overthrow the government of François Bozizé, the country’s deposed Christian president. Fighting began in December 2012, and by March 24, 2013, the Séléka had captured the capital of Bangui, and its leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president.
Worsening Spiral of Barbarism
Djotodia incorporated some of his Séléka fighters into the CAR armed forces. However, Hilbert said the rest of the Muslim Séléka militia, lacking payment from Djotodia for their services, decided to wreak havoc on the country, directing their rampaging, killing and looting to Christian villages and their inhabitants, while leaving Muslims alone.
Hilbert explained that the Christians formed their own “self-defense groups” called anti-Balaka (meaning anti-machete). These groups opted for revenge attacks on their Muslim neighbors, rather than take the Séléka militia head on, which in turn prompted severe reprisal killings.
The conflict is characterized by murder, mutilation and rape by fighters on both sides in the name of religion and is getting worse.
December’s fighting alone in the capital city of Bangui has cost 1,000 lives and displaced 400,000 (more than half the city’s population), according to the United Nation’s agency for children. The CAR has a population of 4.5 million, and the United Nations estimates that 2 million of them are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Fearing that the CAR will descend into religious genocide, the U.N. Security Council has given French and African Union (AU) troops a Chapter 7 mandate to restore peace in the country by any means necessary, including the use of military force. France has deployed 1,600 French troops, while the AU is building up a force of 6,000 troops to restore security.
Catholic Relief in Action
Amid the violence and chaos, the Catholic Church is playing a vital role in humanitarian assistance. Hilbert said the Church was “the only operational, viable institution” in the CAR, especially now that most NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have pulled out of the region over security concerns.
Renee Lambert, country manager for Catholic Relief Services, spoke with the Register from Bangui. She said CRS is implementing a program of providing “straight emergency food assistance” and other basic necessities. Lambert said that even with the food distributions, they can feel tensions rising.
“People are desperate and poverty-stricken,” she said. She particularly pointed to the CAR’s young men as being prone to violence, because they lack jobs or educational opportunities.
While gunfire has diminished in the capital since the arrival of the French and African Union forces, she said, “People are still afraid to go home.”
Lambert said CRS’ program also involves a strategy of peace-building and improving social cohesion, although the main challenge is gathering the funding and human resources needed to see the projects through.
“You have to change people’s hearts here,” Lambert said. She said the CAR needs a national reconciliation program, similar to what was done in Rwanda post-genocide, because “taking people away from their weapons does not take away their anger.”
“Unless you can disarm people’s hearts, taking away weapons is only a small part of the equation,” she said. “That’s really the only way out.”
Even so, Lambert sees reasons for hope amid the violence.
“This country is absolutely gorgeous and has a lot of resources. People are wonderful and full of life and love and joy — even in the midst of everything happening here,” she said. “Every now and again, you hear Congolese music in the center of town, and some people somewhere are dancing.”
Working for Reconciliation
Both Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui and Omar Kabine Layama, imam and president of the Central African Republic Islamic Community, have been going together to communities, appealing for peace and reconciliation as an alternative to bloodshed. Both religious leaders wrote a public appeal, published Dec. 27 in The Washington Post, calling for wider international response to prevent the country from “succumb[ing] to darkness.”
Lambert said CRS is supporting the archbishop and the imam’s joint efforts and is also engaging youth to assist in spreading the message of reconciliation as an alternative to violence.
Joseph Muyango, CRS’ peace-building expert from Rwanda, told the Register that he will be looking and listening to the deeper underlying causes of the conflict in order to determine how to direct CRS’ peace-building efforts in the CAR. He pointed to Rwanda’s national reconciliation efforts, almost 20 years after the horrific 1994 genocide, which saw Hutus massacre their Tutsi neighbors, even those who had worshipped in the same church together.
Muyango told the Register that forgiveness extended by the survivors of the genocide in Rwanda was critical to restoring “social cohesion.”
“Even for them, they are able to say the future is bright; the future is good. We are reconciled; we are living together, even if there are challenges,” he said.
Muyango said creating spaces free from top-down manipulation, as they did in Rwanda, so the community members can “meet to discuss the killings and to try to find a solution together,” might also be a part of a national reconciliation solution for the Central African Republic.
U.S. Catholics’ Role
Hilbert said the U.S. government has allocated $24 million for humanitarian assistance and $40 million for military assistance to the AU force. But he said the USCCB is urging Congress to commit more money to humanitarian assistance and the national reconciliation efforts.
“It is nowhere near enough,” he said.
“This is going to require long-term assistance, and the U.S. should really play its part.”
He also recommended Catholics follow what the administration is doing and encourage Congress to increase humanitarian and economic support. He also advocated that Catholics assist CRS’ humanitarian efforts.
“Make sure to say you want that money to go fund their work in the Central African Republic,” Hilbert said. “[CRS] will respect that and do that for you.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
Online donations to Catholic Relief Services’ humanitarian relief in the Central African Republic can be made here.