Violence that has brought the Central African Republic to its knees following a March coup has raised fears the conflict may become a bloody sectarian one pitting Muslims against Christians.
The deeply poor nation, with a tradition of religious tolerance, has been shaken by a recent spike in clashes between ex-rebels of the Seleka coalition that led the coup, who are Muslim, and local self-defense groups formed by rural residents who are Christian like about 80 percent of the population.
In the region where ousted president Francois Bozize was born, recent fighting near the town of Bossangoa—about 250 kilometers northwest of Bangui—has left about 100 people dead and at least 20,000 more displaced, Christians and Muslims alike.
“We can’t have inter-religious conflict in our country. Me I am Protestant, my wife is Catholic. We have Catholic and Protestant children – even Muslims,” said Isaac Fokpou, a public health official in the capital Bangui, where churches and mosques stand close and “interfaith” families are not rare.
Some CAR officials and religious leaders insist that the roots of the violence sweeping the country have nothing to do with religion, amid shocking testimony of atrocities carried out by former rebel fighters and armed groups coming from neighboring Chad and Sudan.
“The behavior of the Seleka (ex-rebels) is not religious. They rape women, they drink alcohol and take drugs… It is rather the actions of bandits and mercenaries,” said Beatrice Epaye, a member of the country’s National Transition Council.
“I don’t think that there could be an inter-religious conflict in Central Africa because each Muslim has strong ties with at least one or several Christians,” said El Hadj Moussa Rodoane Djarass, former leader of the Central African Islamic Community.
‘Calls for religious hatred’
For the bishop of Bossangoa, Monsignor Nestor Desire Nongo Aziagbia, “the crisis is not religious, it is above all an economic and political crisis,” he said. “The religious aspect is only incidental.”
But he added that amid the current chaos in the CAR, a largely lawless country of 4.6 million people, “there are signs which arouse fear, threats and calls for religious hatred”.
Since the Seleka—which means “alliance”, formed of rebel forces and armed movements—ousted Bozize, the landlocked former French colony has been threatened with “Somalisation”, in the words of French President Francois Hollande.
Ex-Seleka chief Michel Djotodia—who has been sworn in as president to oversee a political transition towards elections next year—dissolved the alliance on September 13, but did not disarm the fighters.
And the country has not been completely free of religious tensions in the past, notes Central African sociologist Isidor Waka.
Under Bozize’s 10-year rule, the authorities harassed Muslims, extorting money from them, and now “the ex-rebels are in a way enacting vengeance for what Muslims endured,” Waka said.
Ancient tensions also exist between nomadic herders who are Muslims and farmers who are mainly Christian, he added.
However, these divisions “are not fundamentally” based on religion, commented Philippe Hugon, research director for Africa at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris), a French think-tank.
The violence in the CAR is mainly “criminal or mafia-related and not ideological” on the part of Seleka ex-rebels, Hugon said, but he added that “for one side to turn religion against another, that’s not new.”
“This is very dangerous,” warned Epaye of the transitional council. “The people have always shared everything and the politicians are pitting them against each other.” AFP