Religious Freedom a ‘Reality’ in Recovering Central African Republic

Illia Djadi | World Watch Monitor | Thursday, August 27, 2015

Religious Freedom a ‘Reality’ in Recovering Central African Republic

The Central African Republic (CAR) is gradually recovering from the two-and-a-half-year crisis which ravaged the country, according to its top three religious leaders.

World Watch Monitor spoke with the clerics – Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou (the President of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance), Monsignor Dieudonné Nzapalainga (the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui), and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama (the President of CAR’s Islamic Council) – during their visit to Switzerland last week, where they received the 2015 Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize at the UN office in Geneva.

(Sergio Vieira de Mello was the UN’s Special Representative in Iraq, killed when the UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed in August 2003. Every two years the award goes to an individual, group or organisation that has done something unique to reconcile people and parties in conflict.)

In the midst of the Central African Republic’s two years of violence, often portrayed as a religious conflict, the clerics formed a joint ‘platform’ to promote peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. Their message: violence in CAR is not primarily a religious conflict; instead, the root of the conflict lies in the struggle for political power.

The security situation has dramatically improved despite the persistence of violence and attacks in some areas of the country (such as in Bambari this past weekend, when at least 10 died), the clerics told World Watch Monitor.

In Bangui, life is returning to normal, including at PK5, a popular district and the economic heart of the capital, where business has resumed.

At the height of the crisis, PK5 was considered by many in Bangui as a stronghold of Séléka rebels, and a “no-go zone” for all non-Muslims.

But now, Central Africans of all faiths can come and go there safely, the clerics say, a sign that the country is beginning to recover.

However, this is at odds with Amnesty International’s recent report.

The report, 'Erased identity: Muslims in ethnically cleansed areas of the Central African Republic', claims Muslims returning to their homes in large parts of western CAR have been prevented from practising their religion by armed “anti-balaka” militias. Some have been forcibly converted to Christianity and threatened with death if they refused, claims Amnesty.

Such allegations came as a “surprise”, and could “incite hatred” and “harm” the efforts of the inter-faith platform, the clerics (who said they were not consulted by the authors of the report) told World Watch Monitor.

“If there are extremists committing these acts, we dissociate ourselves from this behaviour ... Religious freedom is a reality in the Central African Republic.”

--Msgr. Dieudonné Nzapalainga

“We are currently witnessing a mixing of the population. In Bangui and elsewhere, Muslims are no longer confined in ghettos as during the crisis. They begin to have space and can run their businesses normally,” said Imam Layama.

However he said that both Christians and Muslims are afraid to go to certain areas of Bangui, or in the nation as a whole, due to past traumas and lingering pockets of insecurity.

The Archbishop of Bangui stressed that it was important to avoid premature “dramatization” and “stigma”, based on a few examples.

“It is erroneous to consider that there is a desire from one group to destroy another, or that Christians seek to expel all Muslims,” said Msgr. Dieudonné Nzapalainga.

“I would like to remind [people] that I hosted Imam Layama at the height of the crisis. Thousands of Muslims were accommodated in churches and Christians found refuge in mosques, even in PK5, unlike what some may think,” he said.

“'We religious leaders are working to pacify hearts and soothe spirits. If there are extremists committing these acts, we dissociate ourselves from this behaviour,” he added, before concluding: “Religious freedom is a reality in the Central African Republic."

Upcoming elections

But the clerics also expressed their concerns over the upcoming elections, aimed at putting an end to the transition led by Catherine Samba-Panza, following the resignation of the ex-rebel leader and self-proclaimed president, Michel Djotodia, in January 2014.

The elections were initially scheduled for February 2015, but then postponed to June and now October. But the President of the Evangelical Alliance said the conditions for credible elections have not yet been met.

Noting that the 18 October date set for the first round of elections comes at the heart of the rainy season, Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou said: “How can we expect a Central African citizen who has lost faith in political affairs to take the trouble of going out on a rainy day to cast a vote?”

Insecurity is still a major source of concern, said Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, noting that many armed groups remain and that more than 50 per cent of the budget for the electoral process still needs to be found.

“Do the candidates have all the time and freedom of movement to campaign?” he said. “The poor organisation of elections has always been the root cause of recent crises faced by our country.

“We say that we should not go to polls in a hurry, but we do not wait too long because no leader can feed his population with weapons, and no leader can feed the population with broken promises.”

Sexual abuse

The leaders of the interfaith platform also commented on the recent allegations of sexual abuse involving UN troops in CAR, which forced the sacking of the Head of the UN’s Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon.

“The cases of misconduct and sexual abuse are things which defile us and may also be detrimental to the UN’s beautiful mission in CAR,” said Msgr. Nzapalainga. “We must consider that there have been ups and downs in this mission and it is necessary to analyse and find appropriate solutions to these shortcomings.”

These incidents provide a call for Central African and UN officials to effectively implement the MINUSCA mandate, added Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou.

“When we preach the word of God to disarm the hearts, it is necessary that other forces support us in this work of pacification,” he said.

“The warring parties which are still active on the ground must understand that the UN forces did not come for a walk, but for a mission. Only then will people see [the UN] starting to impose disarmament, order and security. Then they can understand the merits of the peacekeepers’ presence in CAR.”

But he added that the UN should also enforce discipline because an army that is not disciplined is “doomed to disorder and all behaviours that dishonour itself”.

Acceptance speeches

Collecting their awards on 19 August, the three clerics spoke in turn.

Imam Layama expressed his gratitude to the jury for their choice, which “honours us”.

Msgr. Nzapalainga said the award was “timely”, showing that Central African citizens are “capable”, at a time when many speak about the Central African Republic in a negative manner.

“It's the whole of humanity, through the UN, which awards the prize. It is also a message sent to each Central African citizen to take his responsibility and bring his contribution for the return of peace,” he added.

Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou said the award was recognition of “human efforts for the benefit of humans”.

“Our efforts will continue until the hearts of Central Africans are resolutely disarmed and reconciliation becomes possible among Central Africans,” he added.

Courtesy: World Watch Monitor

Publication date: August 27, 2015

Religious Freedom a ‘Reality’ in Recovering Central African Republic