Pope Francis tackles Central African Republic's Christian-Muslim Divide

By choosing the travel to CAR, Pope Francis spotlighted the need for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.

L'Osservatore Romano/pool photo via AP
Pope Francis celebrates a mass in the Barthelemy Boganda Stadium, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. The pontiff is on his way back to Italy after a two-day visit to Central African Republic. After a final Mass at the sports stadium in Bangui, the pope's motorcade headed to the airport where his plane has now taken off.

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Pope Francis arrived yesterday in the troubled nation of Central African Republic, the last part of his three-nation African tour.  While CAR has had bouts of political instability, the past two years have witnessed horrors that have plagued other nations  – explosive Muslim/Christian violence, along with targeted killing of people because of their faith and destruction of houses of worship.  Since late September, new fighting has led to nearly 100 deaths and 40,000 people being forced to flee their homes.   

By his very presence, the Pope spotlighted the need for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, which he expressed while visiting a Muslim area, as well as stronger protection for religious freedom and increased engagement by the international community.  This formula is critical not only to CAR’s future but to that of other countries facing similar challenges. 

CAR’s recent tribulations began with an all-too-familiar rebellion against the government in December 2012 leading to President François Bozizé’s ouster in March 2013.   What followed were forced disappearances, illegal detentions, torture, and political opponents being murdered.   But in one way, this rebellion was different: It was led by Michel Djotodia, the commander of the Séléka, a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels in a country that was 85 percent Christian.   It shocked many Central Africans who mistakenly viewed every Séléka depredation as Muslims deliberately targeting Christians.

In June 2013, Bozizé began plotting a return to power, recruiting local militias known as the anti-Balaka.  Bozizé manipulated Christian anger about Séléka abuses, including attacks on churches and Christian communities which spared mosques and Muslims, and depicted his forces as avenging Séléka assaults against non-Muslims.  Fighting escalated in December 2013, when the anti-Balaka began pummeling Muslim neighborhoods, homes, and businesses in Bangui, CAR’s capital city.  The ensuing tit-for-tat violence included targeted killings based on religious identity.    

Regional and international pressure forced out President Djotodia in January 2014 and parliament elected Bangui’s mayor, Catherine Samba Panza, as interim president two weeks later.  Violence continued through midyear, especially against Muslims.  The country’s de facto partition between the Séléka and the anti-Balaka and the signing of the Brazzaville peace accords in July produced a hollow, fragile pause in the bloodshed.   

But by that time, the damage had been done:  CAR was devastated and fractured along religious lines as never before.

Last year, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC) began investigating reports of genocide in CAR.  In December, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the Central African Republic issued its report which detailed atrocities on both sides.  

The report found a “pattern” in anti-Balaka atrocities of ethnic and religious cleansing against CAR’s Muslim minority.    Militia members told Muslims to leave the country or die, and hundreds were killed, including those fleeing in evacuation convoys.  Even before the fighting began, Muslims were only 15 percent of the population.  Since the anti-Balaka assaults, 99 percent of Bangui’s Muslims and 80 percent of CAR’s Muslim population have fled and 417 of the country’s 436 mosques have been destroyed.

While the COI found no evidence of ethnic or religious cleansing of Christians, it confirmed that Séléka fighters periodically targeted priests, pastors, and nuns, and church buildings and other institutions and raped and killed Christians while shielding Muslims.  

The Pope’s visit shines further light on the Séléka and anti-Balaka violence and human rights abuses and underscores the need for a response.  CAR’s leaders must ensure a future for Muslims by stressing that they are equal citizens.   They must help rebuild destroyed mosques and make sure that CAR’s national reconciliation forum recommendations are implemented.   The international community must continue aiding refugees and displaced persons.

The United States, for its part, should continue sanctioning Central Africans responsible for the violence and support the formation of a Special Criminal Court.  The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, urges the State Department to designate CAR a “country of particular concern,” marking it among the world’s worst religious freedom violators.  In all future engagements with CAR authorities, UN officials, and neighboring countries, the United States should include issues related to ending the bloodshed, supporting rule-of-law reforms and professionalizing CAR’s judiciary, reducing interfaith tensions, protecting religious freedom, and securing religious minority rights.  

CAR has endured a trauma that must not be replicated elsewhere.   For CAR’s sake and its own, the world must help bring aid to the innocent, justice to the guilty, and religious freedom, interfaith harmony, and reconciliation to that stricken land.

M. Zuhdi Jasser is a Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).  Katrina Lantos Swett is a USCIRF Commissioner.

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