Archbishop and Imam Are United Across Battle Lines in Central African Republic

by Carlotta Gall

BANGUI, Central African Republic — When the killing began, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga did what many would have expected of him: He opened his church to hundreds of Christian families fleeing the Muslim militias hunting them.
But he also provided refuge to an unusual friend and partner: the most senior Muslim cleric here, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, who was under threat himself from vengeful Christians.
For months, the two religious leaders, along with the leading Protestant cleric, tried to head off the brewing sectarian tensions, traveling across the country to instill the message, “We are brothers.”
But instead of reconciliation, Central African Republic is now awash in fear and distrust. In a country that has suffered from decades of coups and internal conflict since its independence in 1960, the violence has taken a religious turn, with Christians and Muslims killing one another and whole communities taking up arms.
Hundreds have died this month alone. Tens of thousands more have fled their homes. The nation is so precariously divided that diplomats the world over have warned of mass atrocities, even genocide, and sent thousands of international troops to the streets in the hope of preventing them.  “We have to leave this cycle of hate, or the state will fail,” Archbishop Nzapalainga said.
The conflict ripping the country apart revolves around the oldest of motives: a struggle for power. Mostly Muslim rebel forces known as Seleka, or Alliance, overthrew the government in March, ousting President François Bozizé and putting in power the country’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia. Since then, Christian militias backed by Mr. Bozizé have tried to overthrow
the Muslim alliance.
But the crisis had been building for years, and the religious leaders said the mutual animosity leading Christians and Muslims to attack one another was, at its roots, a manufactured one, deliberately stoked for political ends. Now, they fear it has taken on a life of its own.
“We saw this danger” being created, Imam Layama said. “It was all put in place for a Christian and Muslim conflict.”
As Mr. Bozizé felt his power threatened by the rebels, the religious leaders said, he tried to rally the majority Christian population against them by any means.
“Bozizé started to turn the people against Muslims,” the imam said. “He said the Seleka were Arabs, that they would come to enforce Islam and change your schools into Quranic schools. He told the people,
‘Take up your knives and axes and machetes,’ and he identified Muslim neighborhoods by name. So the spirit was created.”
Archbishop Nzapalainga agreed: “The problem was the politicians who used religion.”  The Christian majority would have accepted a Muslim leader who governed justly, the archbishop said. Many, in fact, welcomed the overthrow of Mr. Bozizé. “It is a question of competence,” he said. “People will accept a leader who is competent.”
But the actions of the Seleka ruined any hope of that. The undisciplined troops who seized the country this year carried out such lawless killing and pillaging during their nine months in power that the suspicions conjured by the previous government were reinforced, both religious leaders said.
“They did much harm,” Imam Layama said of the Muslim rebels. “The former government has profited from the misbehavior of the Seleka. They have been able to use that, since the people suffered so much under the Seleka.”
Spillover from conflicts farther north has added fuel to the fire. Arabic-speaking Muslim fighters from Chad and Sudan who joined the Seleka rebels were particularly ruthless and beyond the control of the government, worsening the religious divisions, the imam said.
The violence has started to look like the broader sectarian conflict that he and the archbishop feared. When Christian fighters tried to seize control of the capital, Bangui, on Dec. 5, the Seleka fighters in the city repulsed them and then unleashed a wave of killings of Christians whom they accused of being collaborators. Christian mobs retaliated, lynching Muslim civilians and attacking several mosques.
Tens of thousands of Christians have fled their homes and say they dare not return — not only for fear of the militias, but also for fear of their Muslim neighbors, who they say are all armed.
Likewise, people living in Muslim neighborhoods, who are a minority in the capital and in the country as a whole, fear being overrun by the Christian militias and slaughtered in revenge for the atrocities committed by the Seleka.
“It is the balance of fear: Each side fears the other,” said a Western security consultant working in Bangui, who requested anonymity for security reasons. Central African Republic straddles the cultural divide between the northern part of the continent, which is mainly Muslim and Arab, and sub-Saharan Africa, which is largely Christian. Christians and those with indigenous beliefs, mostly subsistence farmers, make up a majority of the population. Muslims — traditionally traders and herders who migrated south — make up 15 percent. They live mostly in the northern part of the country and maintain connections with their northern neighbors, Chad and Sudan.  Muslims in Central African Republic complain of prejudice in their own land. The north is the most neglected part of the country, with few roads and schools and little development, and the former government ignored their demands for assistance.
Branded as foreigners, Muslims have long had difficulty applying for identity cards and have been excluded from jobs and education, said Abakar Saboune, a former rebel leader and current presidential adviser. Even the new president adopted a Christian name, Michel, to avoid discrimination, Mr. Saboune said.  Both sides, Christian and Muslim, have used their own communities for information and recruits, Archbishop Nzapalainga said, drawing the civilian population into the conflict, often at gunpoint. “The people are between the hammer and anvil,” he said.
and forbade them to claim they were fighting in the name of Christianity. “No Christian leader gave you that mandate,” he told them.
There are still some beacons of good will. In Kilometer 5, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood of the capital, mosques and a Quranic school stand beside the Catholic church and priests’ residence of the Parish of St. Matthias.
When the massacres began on Dec. 5 and news spread of Christian reprisals against mosques, a Muslim student, Shaiban Mohammad, gathered followers to guard the neighborhood. They stationed men on every street corner to watch for trouble and helped fleeing Christian families to the priests’ house for safety.
“We secured the whole neighborhood,” Mr. Mohammad, 23, said in an interview. “The church was also protected. It is also a house of God.”
On the second day, a Muslim mob arrived, intent on attacking the church.
“They were young men who had lost relatives,” Mr. Mohammad said. “We held the crowd back. It was very heated; it was difficult to stop them.”
Eventually, as one of the imams recited the Quran, the crowd drew back.
Mr. Mohammad said, his face breaking into a smile, that he was studying to be a hafiz, one who can recite the Quran by heart.
“We hope for peace and stability,” he said. “We have been with these people since childhood, and we live very well together.”
The next morning, Christian militias attacked the neighborhood with a barrage of rockets and gunfire. Dozens of Muslims were wounded as they helped their families flee. Mr. Mohammad and one other person, witnesses said, were killed.
“That is why people retreat into their community identity,” Archbishop Nzapalainga said. “We Christians are with our own. The Muslims are with their own.”
“There is such hatred,” he added. “To heal that memory is going to take a long time.

Posted by on Jan 23 2014. Filed under African News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Leave a Reply