WASHINGTON (Morning Star News) – More than four months after Islamist rebels seized control of the Christian-majority Central African Republic (CAR), Christians remain vulnerable to atrocities and the threat of imposition of Islamic law.
Rebel groups and Islamist mercenaries from Chad and Sudan joined forces in December to form a militant coalition called Seleka, which took the capital, Bangui, on March 24 and sent then-President Francois Bozize into exile in Cameroon. Seleka Islamist leader Michel Djotodia took over as president.
“It is clear, according to our research, that it is Christians who have been suffering under Seleka rule and Muslims have been profiting,” Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in an email to Morning Star News from the lawless country yesterday, adding that Seleka agents “have not hesitated to attack Christian places of worship.”
Mudge confirmed that Christian fears about the intentions of the new leaders are not unfounded. Djotodia made a pledge to impose sharia (Islamic law) in a 2012 request for support from the Saudi Arabia-based Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The request was contained in an April 17, 2012 letter addressed to the OIC and signed by Djotodia, who denies writing it; Morning Star News obtained a copy of the correspondence.
“God willing and we come to Bangui; we will put in place a regime to apply Islamic sharia law,” Djotodia wrote in the letter, marked confidential, in which he requests material and financial support to overthrow the government of Bozize. “Even if we fail to hunt Bozize, we will transform a part of the Central African Republic, Chad and Darfur into a new Islamic Republic.”
Muslims in Sudan’s Darfur region and Chad support the CAR rebels’ aims, Djotodia wrote.
“After our victory, we will also help them take power in Chad,” he wrote. “We need your support, brothers. It should help us in material, money and homes. We agree that your items come to fight on our side.”
When Catholic and evangelical leaders chanced upon a copy of the letter and forwarded it to the self-appointed president, he denied writing it, according to sources in CAR.
With Seleka attacking priests, pastors, nuns, church buildings and other Christian institutions, the letter brought tensions to a head. The leader of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance, the Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame, is part of the National Transitional Council, created to act in place of the dissolved parliament; he and other leaders of the CAR Evangelical Alliance fired off a letter to Djotodia on May 10.
“The various atrocities that preceded, accompanied and followed Seleka’s rise to power have been specifically aimed at the Christian population,” says the letter, signed by Guerekoyame and Evangelical Alliance leaders Michel Gbegbe and Anatole Banga. “Churches and Christian institutions have been desecrated and plundered, priests and pastors have been assaulted and nuns raped.”
The letter added that Seleka’s actions have been characterized by “massive and unprecedented violations of human rights in the form of large-scale looting … killings and murders, threats and intimidation, abductions, torture and summary executions, rape of women including nuns, desecration of churches and religious institutions and violence against servants of God (priests and pastors in particular).”
The letter pointed out a Sunday morning when Seleka fighters visited a pastor outside Bangui and demanded that he “leave the area, for a mosque to be built in the place of his church.”
Guerekoyame was arrested on Aug. 6 for criticizing the government from the pulpit at a church in Bangui, in spite of the immunity he is supposed to enjoy as a member of the National Transitional Council; he was released later that day.
There have been several reports that agents of the new CAR government selectively attack Christians, their villages and churches, while sparing Muslims, which account for less than 15 per cent of the population of about 4.5 million people.
Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission, on Aug. 15 called for an immediate end to the breakdown of law and order, saying in a press statement that the assaults “highlight the targeting of Christians.”
Yogarajah condemned the selective attack on Christians and their churches and called on the international community, including the global church, to rally round suffering CAR Christians and give them needed support.
Catholic bishops in the impoverished African country have similar views. In a May 5 statement by the president of the Catholic Bishops Justice and Peace Commission, Bishop Albert Vanbuel said church buildings and workers in the dioceses of Alindao, Bambari, Bangassou, Bossangoa and Kaga-Bandoro had been attacked and people traumatized while rebel alliance members “continue to kill each day.”
“The population is living in permanent anguish, fear, pillage, rape, injustice, violence and the settling of scores,” Vanbuel said, adding that the commission was “alarmed at the continuing acts of barbarity by Seleka elements, especially when power is held by one of them.”
Djotodia has claimed that the atrocities are being carried out not by Seleka but by elements beyond his control.
Vanbuel denounced the new government in Bangui as “a rebellion of religious extremism with evil intentions, characterized by profanation and planned destruction of religious buildings, especially Catholic and Protestant churches.”
The Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, wrote a letter to Djotodia earlier this year in which he condemned the killings of Christians and destruction of their churches by Seleka government elements and urged him to indemnify the church for “stolen, looted and vandalized properties.”
Nzapalainga also denounced the raping of women and conscription of child soldiers by Seleka forces. He told the president to bring all perpetrators of crime to justice and “declare your true intentions toward Christians.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are more than 206,000 displaced people within the country and 63,000 others that have fled to neighboring countries.
Mudge of HRW said that “the current situation in Central Africa Republic is fragile, and the humanitarian crisis verges on a catastrophe.” Neighborhoods in Bangui, he said, “continue to be attacked and looted by Seleka; villages in the provinces are not spared as civilians are killed and homes are plundered and burned.”
HRW documented more than 1,000 homes destroyed by Seleka outside the capital and scores of unarmed civilians killed in June alone.
“Behind all of this violence,” Mudge said, “the humanitarian situation worsens. Because of a lack of security, humanitarian actors cannot access the most vulnerable; people continue to die in the bush due to disease, exposure and malnutrition.”
Although CAR has suffered sporadic violence and a spate of military coups since independence from France in 1960, observers describe the latest violence as the worst ever.
Christians within and outside CAR have expressed fears over the direction of the Islamic-led government of Djotodia, who was officially sworn in on Aug. 18 with a mandate to complete a transition with an elected government in 18 months. Observers are skeptical of a successful transition given ongoing humanitarian, economic and political chaos in the country, and representatives of various groups are seeking ways and international support to prevent the imposition of sharia.
Allegations of Central Africa Republic's Evangelical Alliance
On May 10, the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic sent rebel leader-turned self-proclaimed President Michel Djotodia the following grievances, among others:
“Since the commencement of hostilities, in the provinces, in Bangui and in regions subsequently occupied as well, we have recorded appalling accounts of actions against Christian communities and individual property. Without even giving an exhaustive list:
- The Christian Cultural Centre run by a pastor was ransacked.
- More than 120 corrugated iron sheets were taken from the roofs of the houses of two different pastors.
- Two Christians were set free only after the payment of 195,000 Franc ransoms.
- Four large villages were burned, and the pastors and their congregations are now hiding out in the bush, a prey to illnesses and other problems; we refer to four churches in Marouamba, Mohoroko, Blagadja and Azen.
- The orphanage was looted, its vehicle taken, the children menaced and left traumatized.
- A pastor died when his house was deliberately set on fire, and another was killed out in his field, after Seleka troops went after him.
- The place of residence of the leading pastor of the church was ransacked.
- The Collège de Théologie Biblique d’Alindao (CTBA) on the Alindao mission station was systematically looted and destroyed.
- Three mission vehicles, pastors’ motorbikes, generators, solar panels, etc. all taken.
- A pastor was beaten up.
- A pastor had a visit at 10-o’clock at night and was told he would be killed if he did not give them money.
- Another pastor working with a Christian organization received two sms [messages] with death threats.
- The pastor of a Zawa church in the sub-prefecture of Yaloké saw his son killed before his eyes in cold blood; he himself was beaten up and humiliated.
On the road to Boali
- In the Pk 35, at a meeting of Baptist churches, Seleka fighters turned up and took all the money that had been given in the offerings.
- The Brethren church in the Cité Jean XXIII quarter was shelled during a worship service, Sunday 14 April, leaving a number of people including children killed or seriously injured.
- Pastor-chaplain Serge was shot dead by the Seleka in front of the church in the Ouango quarter despite the Bible he carried to show that he was a servant of God.
- A pastor heading a Christian NGO had to watch Seleka fighters carry off 10 motorbikes, five vehicles, five computers, four printers, one multi-function photocopier, 56 GPS, seven cameras and one laminator (originally stored in front of the Hôtel Ledger).
- The house of a pastor was visited four times and more by the Seleka, and two 4x4 vehicles and a motorbike were taken. Apparently one of the vehicles identified can be found in the Bangui Mpoko District.
- The leader of a Christian organization saw his vehicle taken, while a pastor working in the same organization, who had just lost his father, was beaten up, threatened with death, and relieved of a sum of 150.000 Francs which he had in his pocket to pay for his father’s funeral.
- Another pastor’s 4x4 vehicle was taken as he was coming back from an evangelistic mission.
- The house of a pastor in Malimaka was occupied for some days by Seleka troops.
- A pastor in the Boy Rabe District saw his two vehicles taken away, while another only narrowly escaped an attacker.
- A pastor in the Pk 12 District saw his two vehicles taken by the Seleka.
- A pastor in Gobongo was threatened with death and relieved of 120,000 Francs.
- A pastor was forced to leave his house in the Pk13 District, after it was looted and his life threatened.
- While a pastor was in church, Seleka fighters began ransacking his house; fortunately French and Central African Multinational troops arrived in time to stop them carrying off their plunder.
- One Sunday before the church service, a pastor was visited by Seleka fighters who demanded that he leave the area, for a mosque to be built in the place of his church.
- The leader of a church denomination has left the country after being threatened.
- A pastor narrowly escaped with his life, while boxes of toys and Christmas presents for Pygmy children were taken, along with two vehicles that had been taken to the forest for safekeeping.
Thus, while hitherto the Muslim and Christian communities have always lived in mutual respect and harmony, today we are witnessing the extreme of religious antagonism. Which causes us to express to you the serious concerns we have concerning the reasons behind the coup that brought you to power.”
c. 2013 Morning Star News. Used with permission.
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Publication date: September 6, 2013