The Central African Republic is being torn apart by violence that pits Christians against Muslims, but three religious leaders representing the Protestant, Muslim and Catholic communities are working together to bring reconciliation to their country through interreligious dialogue.
The Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyame Gbangou, Imam Omar Kabine Layama, and Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga were friends involved in interreligious dialogue before the conflict started, but their work became a matter of life and death when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized the southern capital, Bangui, in March 2013. The rebels ousted President François Bozizé and installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, who was forced out by international pressure that paved the way for the current transitional government.
Meanwhile, clashes between the Seleka and the mostly Christian and animist anti-Balaka militia have resulted in an unknown number of casualties, 200,000 internally displaced people, and thousands of Muslims leaving the country. French and U.N. peacekeepers are now in the country, although fighting is still going on.
The three religious leaders are "working together, speaking with a single, united voice to promote religious freedom, to protect human rights, and to combat extremism," explained Imam Layama, president of the Central African Republic Islamic Community, at a meeting with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last month. "We had already been working since Dec. 15, 2012, to denounce the actions of the Seleka group and the killing, the looting, and the human rights violations. We had been working to stand up and say no to this violence."
(Full disclosure: I am a member of the commission.)
The three leaders argue that the conflict in their country, which is 80 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim, is not a religious conflict, but a political and military conflict.
"We came together to counter these two military/political groups -- Seleka and the government -- and to show that this was not a religious crisis," Imam Layama said, "that it wasn't all Muslims against all Christians in the country. In fact, a lot of Christians went to great lengths to protect Muslims. This is not, in fact, a religious war."
Archbishop Nzapalainga of Bangui agreed. "We've had a whole stream of journalists come into the country, and they tended to look at the situation at a very primitive level, and they've summarized it as being a religious war, the anti-Balaka equal Christians and Seleka equal Muslims," the archbishop said. "This is a very limited perspective."
Imam Layama pointed out that "Seleka is about 80 percent Muslim and 20 percent Christian."
Archbishop Nzapalainga sees a host of underlying factors behind this crisis, related mostly to injustice.
"The Seleka rose up because they were claiming that their region had been abandoned, that they had no say in the government, that their resources or diamonds were being stolen, and that they were the victims of lack of attention from the government," the archbishop explained.
"In our country, Christians and Muslims have always lived together peacefully," he said. "The people are not fighting for religious reasons. They're not saying, 'We're fighting for the Bible,' 'We're fighting for the Quran,' or because our Muslim clothing or Christian clothing. They're fighting because of wealth, riches. They're fighting for gold, for diamonds, and because they want to have power. Those are the reasons for this conflict. People are not out there saying that they're fighting because of religion."
"When you have a very poor population and children are not able to go to school," Archbishop Nzapalainga explained, "then when these armed groups come in and propose other prospects to these kids, they're going to follow them. That's what we found happening in our country."
Imam Layama agreed. At the beginning, the anti-Balaka "were attacking the government and they were trying to regain power. When they came to Bangui, when they were not able to take power, that's when they started to turn against the Muslim community to appease their anger. When they heard that the people's families were being killed, entire villages were being burned by the Seleka."
When churches and mosques were attacked, Archbishop Nzapalainga said, it was "just bandits, criminals, who were trying to pit the two communities against each other. There are no religious leaders heading up Seleka or anti-Balaka."
In response to the violence, the religious leaders went around the entire country, including villages occupied by Seleka, calling on the people to be orderly and not to destroy the social cohesion in the country.
"We brought together the different religious communities and religious leaders -- imams, pastors, and priests," Imam Layama said, "and encouraged them to continue working together so that we would not be instrumentalized by politics, because that is what is at the basis of this whole conflict--religion was being manipulated for political reasons."
Archbishop Nzapalainga felt that the first step of reconciliation had to take place at the village level, where people "can come together and talk it out; they can listen to each other and be heard. It's a form of therapy. Who did what? Who killed whom? Talk it out so that there can be a certain level of accountability and responsibility within the villages."
"If we allow people the opportunity to talk it out with each other and for their concerns to be heard," he said, "then they're going to be more likely to come closer to their neighbors and to be able to work together to start building a future for our country."
"The second step is that there has to be justice for the victims who have suffered so much," the archbishop explained. "They often see that the people who have taken up arms and who have been committing these acts of killing are often then given posts in the ministries or other political positions. Justice needs to be done so that people can see that people are not going to have immunity for these types of crimes, at either the national or international level."
With the help of nongovernmental organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Search For Common Ground, the three clerics organized workshops to train religious leaders on social cohesion and conflict resolution.
"We also held them for politicians, for members of the transitional government, also for Seleka and anti-Balaka members, so that everybody could get this training and be educated about the importance of social cohesion and living together in harmony," Imam Layama said.
The religious leaders also formed two committees, one of young people and one of women, composed of Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims, "to get the message out and to work together to promote social cohesion, peace, and brotherhood," the imam said.
The transitional government and the international community are pushing for a quick election, but the three religious leaders said they felt that would be a mistake.
"We need to move more slowly on organizing the elections," the Rev. Gbangou said.
"If we organize elections at the national level very quickly thinking that this is going to resolve the problem," Archbishop Nzapalainga explained, "the problems are still going to be there and the situation is going to really explode and become even worse."
Disarmament is necessary before the election. "You can't have elections in a country where there is such a proliferation of arms, so we have to first look at disarming these groups," the archbishop said. "You can't go to the ballot and vote when there are so many arms circulating. So we need to disarm them in order to free up the voices for democracy."
The Rev. Gbangou stressed the importance of a formal involvement of their interfaith platform in the national dialogue and reconciliation process. "We are out there working and putting actions into place and we take positions," he said, "but they're not always taken into account."
With all of the problems in the world, little attention is given by Americans to the ongoing crisis in the Central African Republic, but these three wise men from Africa remind us that reconciliation and peace are possible if people of faith work together.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His writings for NCR do not necessarily reflect the views of the USCIRF, on which he serves as a commissioner. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]