In Central African Republic, ‘this is the devil’

In his Christmas Day message, Pope Francis prayed to the infant Jesus, “Grant peace, dear Child, to the Central African Republic, often forgotten and overlooked.”

Pope Francis was referring to a conflict that began in the landlocked African nation in December 2012 — a conflict that has killed thousands and placed 1 million at risk of starvation, according to Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s confederation of relief and development agencies.

“Gunfire crackles daily,” the agency recently reported. “Smoke plumes up from burned out villages. Gangs of young men hang menacingly on the streets, machetes in hand. There is no rule of law and no police.”

In the midst of a conflict that might be spiraling toward genocide, the nation’s bishops have consistently raised their voices to advocate for human rights and plead for dialogue and peace.

A troubled history

When the French territory of Ubangi-Shari gained its independence in 1960, 17 percent of the population was Catholic. Today, 24 percent is Catholic and 15 percent is Muslim, with the remainder adhering to other forms of Christianity or indigenous religions.

Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga

Since independence, the Central African Republic has had a troubled history, including the ruthless dictatorship of a self-proclaimed emperor and four military coups. François Bozizé, a former army leader who overthrew the president in 2003, won elections in 2005 and 2011. Michel Djotodia, a Muslim who studied economics in the Soviet Union, led a rebellion against Bozizé in 2004. The Central African Republic Bush War, which lasted until 2007, caused more than 200,000 of the nation’s 5.2 million people to flee their homes.

In December 2012, Djotodia launched another rebellion, and this time his rebel coalition, called Séléka, included foreign Islamist fighters.

By mid-January, Séléka controlled 75 percent of the country, and, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 600,000 civilians had fled their homes. Bishops denounced atrocities on both sides of the conflict and called for a cease fire. Séléka forces began to loot Catholic institutions and threaten women religious.

In mid-February 2013, the bishops issued a new statement: “There is no respect for the inviolable right to physical integrity of every human person, particularly women and girls, who are repeatedly abused and raped,” they said. One bishop, Bishop Juan-José Aguirre Muñoz of Bangassou, told Fides News Agency that Séléka consisted “largely of jihadists who speak Arabic” and who “have killed and raped civilians [and] looted homes and Christian missions.”

In early March, the nation’s leading prelate, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and the nation’s leading Muslim cleric, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, left the Bozizé-controlled capital of Bangui and toured Séléka-controlled areas. Layama denounced Séléka atrocities, and Archbishop Nzapalainga said he experienced “desolation.”

On March 24, Bangui fell to Séléka, and Catholics praying in front of the cathedral were robbed. Djotodia suspended the constitution and declared he would rule by decree for three years.

The Djotodia regime

In the 10 months that followed, Séléka “carried out a campaign of executions, indiscriminate killings, village burnings and rape that plunged the country into chaos and displaced nearly a quarter of the country’s majority Christian population,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The nation’s bishops continued to draw attention to atrocities and speak out on behalf of the beleaguered civilian population. In May, Bishop Albert Vanbuel of Kaga-Bandoro denounced the “programmed and planned desecration and destruction of religious Christian buildings, and in particular the Catholic and Protestant churches.” In a June letter, the bishops courageously chronicled and denounced the abuses.

In the months that followed, Archbishop Nzapalainga was a leading voice for the oppressed as attacks on churches continued, including two grenades being discovered in the prelate’s cathedral in Bagnui. In September, Djotodia officially dissolved Séléka, but atrocities continued, and civilians began to organize self-defense groups. The following month, Archbishop Nzapalainga warned that “the Central African Republic is a powder keg. ... People are being killed, houses burnt and women raped” by Séléka forces, whose numbers, he said, had grown to 25,000.

By November, clashes between Séléka and the self-defense groups — collectively known as anti-balaka — increased. Tens of thousands took refuge in Catholic missions. Dec. 5, said Bishop Aguirre, was an “apocalyptic day. ... Several Muslim shops were looted. Séléka are killing young Christians in all districts. We counted at least 100 bodies in the streets. Every parish in the capital is welcoming up to 2,000-3,000 people.”

As French peacekeeping forces arrived, Séléka forces began to retreat from the capital, while Catholic and Muslim leaders together distributed food. “Many Christians say they want revenge,” Archbishop Nzapalainga preached on Dec. 15. “Christians must be inhabited by the Spirit of God; they must not kill.” He and Imam Layama continued to issue joint appeals for peace.

As anti-balaka members committed atrocities against Muslim civilians, bishops condemned anti-balaka’s actions and repeatedly insisted that the loosely organized network was not Christian despite Western media reports to the contrary. Most anti-balaka members are “animists, not Christians,” Father Jean-Marius Toussaint Zoumalde, a Capuchin Franciscan missionary, told the newspaper Ouest-France.

On Jan. 8, the nation’s bishops again called for peace. The nation has “slipped into a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals in which the civilian population is held hostage,” they said. “We condemn all this violence, regardless of its origin.”

Two days later, Djotodia, under pressure from the international community because of his inability to control the spiraling violence, resigned.

After Djotodia

Earlier this year, on Jan. 10, Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, the head of Djotodia’s hand-picked parliament, became interim president. Less than two weeks later, Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui, replaced him.

“Throughout January 2014 and the first week of February, thousands of Muslim families from towns with sizable Muslim populations ... fled horrific anti-balaka attacks,” Human Rights Watch said. Archbishop Nzapalainga, who said “the state has failed,” traveled to European capitals with Imam Layama to plead for international intervention. On Feb. 10, Archbishop Nzapalainga, Imam Layama and a Protestant leader issued another joint appeal for peace. Archbishop Nzapalainga also warned of the specter of genocide.

“I had only ever seen that sort of thing in films about Rwanda before, but never here with us,” he told Aid to the Church in Need News. “I think that evil was there. Now the evil has touched us. It shows itself in the desire to kill, to destroy. This is the devil.”

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.