“The walls of mistrust and separation can be knocked down by dialogue and solidarity. Fear is the first enemy of peace and brotherhood among communities”. After four years of civil war in the Central African Republic, peace is gradually coming back. The Catholic Archbishop of the capital Bangui, Mons. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, talked to us about his experience.
When the rebellion of the Seleka armed groups broke out in the northern part of the country in December 2012, we did not realise the relevance of those events. The Central African Republic (CAR) had already experienced several armed rebellions over the last few years, but they had always been quickly suppressed. We thought that Seleka was just another movement which would be stopped like the previous ones after some clashes between the army and the rebels, followed by a round table in a neighbouring country and the assignment of political offices … end of the crisis. But our certainties changed into insecurities while we observed the profile of the combatants, their impact on the population in the conquered areas, the content of the speeches of the local powers.
The Seleka fighters were mainly from the northern part of the Central African Republic, from those areas along the border with Chad and Sudan. Being the majority of them Muslims as well as many of the foreign mercenaries fighting within the Seleka’s ranks, the then President of the Central African Republic, Francois Bozize – defined, the Seleka rebellion, at first, as a jihadist aggression. As the Seleka’ s attacks continued even against some churches in the region, some politicians supported by a few media outlets started to refer to the Seleka rebellion as a religious conflict.
We, the religious leaders, realised that it was our responsibility to make people understand that the assumption of the religious conflict was unfounded. In December 2012, Pastor Nicolas Guerékoyame Gbangou, President of the Evangelical Churches, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Central African Islamic Community and Mgr. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Archibishop of Bangui, set up an Interfaith Peace Platform. The Platform worked to stop armed groups from exploiting religion to create chaos in the Central African Republic, to specify that the ongoing conflict was not religious and to firmly demand that religion not be dragged into a war which was purely political. Our commitment was mainly spiritual, we organized interfaith prayer gatherings, we spoke up for peace, justice, and support for all our brothers and sisters who were suffering, without distinction of religion.
Our assistance to Christians and Muslims
We also organized many interfaith celebrations in public places. Christians and Muslims together worshipped the God of Abraham, our father in faith. As religious leaders, we sent messages of peace. At that time the conflict had reached its climax, and obviously people were rather sceptical about the concepts of peace and brotherhood. Nevertheless we, the religious leaders, were deeply convinced that words would be able to fix links broken by acts of hatred and division. Therefore we multiplied our messages of peace and decided to distribute food, along with the national Caritas to those who arrived at the refugee camp and who lacked everything.
We offered our assistance to Christians and Muslims. One day a group of Muslim extremists of the PK 5 enclave prevented us from helping some displaced Muslims. But we did not give in, and we continued to help those people in a discreet manner, through moderate Muslims. We also faced problems with Catholics and Protestants themselves, who did not understand why we were assisting Muslim refugees, who were associated with the Seleka movement, that responsible for all that they were going through. We had to clarify that not all Muslims were Seleka fighters, and that not all Seleka fighters were Muslims. But the strongest opposition came from our own communities. When Iman Kobine took distance from the Seleka movement and defined its way of acting as contrary to the Quran, the reaction to his declarations was aggressive. He was accused of betraying his own community and threatened with death. I also experienced these very unfriendly reactions.
We felt abandoned and alone; but at the same time we were aware we had to remain firm in our position in order to prevent political manipulations from dragging people into a confessional war. We had to go against the grain and try to make as many people as possible aware of the danger of political manipulations. We therefore set up an interreligious platform for youth and women, both Christian and Muslim, charged with the task of spreading our message throughout the neighbourhoods.
When Iman Kobine’ s house was pillaged by the enemies of peace, I offered him and his family a place to stay in our bishopric for months. This was an effective sign of social cohesion, reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. The Iman’s presence encouraged other Muslims to seek protection in the bishopric and in some parishes. When Pastor Guerekoyame was taken prisoner by the Seleka rebels, we went to visit him to show him our solidarity and to push the community of the Central African believers to work together for a peaceful coexistence.
I learned a lot from this experience, for instance that the walls of mistrust and separation can be knocked down by dialogue and solidarity. I have also learned that fear is the first enemy of peace and brotherhood among communities. I felt that God protected me and helped me throughout all those difficult moments when I felt abandoned. He gave me the faith and the strength to believe that even the most desperate situations can positively evolve if we work side by side with the others. I want to thank the Lord for His presence and support.
The coming of the Holy Father has caused a miracle in the country. Violence was still ‘routine’ just three months before the Pope’s arrival. His was the last chance for peace and brotherhood. Well, his visit really helped to knock down the walls of hatred and mistrust. When the Pope walked by the PK 5 enclave, the Muslims living there came out to see him. That was the first miracle.
Since he left, the communities in CAR have been fraternizing. Pope Francis opened the door of mercy in our hearts. Peace is gradually coming back, now we must keep the good results we have achieved, and interreligious dialogue is the only way to do so.