Currently, the violence-torn country in the heart of Africa is experiencing the worst crisis in its history. The harmful effects of religion being manipulated for political purposes are alarming. More striking is the campaign for peace of the religious leaders of the Central African Republic (CAR) with the President of the National Evangelical Alliance playing a role. From initiating the process of reconciliation in remote villages, to high level meetings internationally, the heads of the Protestant, Catholic and Muslim communities work together tirelessly for months on end to restore the social fabric of their country. New York, Washington, Paris, Brussels, and Geneva – following their extraordinary peacebuilding efforts on the ground – their message falls on sympathetic ears; with far reaching effects.
In view of the thousands of people who have fallen victim to unspeakable atrocities and killings, Pastor Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance in the CAR, underlines that “prayers have to be oriented to reconciling hearts – to disarm hearts” to finally end the cycle of reprisals. Together with Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Central African Islamic Community, and Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga he traveled throughout the country to initiate interreligious dialogue between the two communities divided by hatred and fear. They first came together in December 2012 when then President François Bozizé was inciting Christians to take up arms against the Muslim minority, scaring them with a looming wave of Islamisation in view of the steady gains the Seleka rebel groups, led by Michel Djotodia, made in the north of the country. After Imam Layama repeatedly received hate mail from the anti-Balaka militia found refuge in Archbishop Nzapalainga’s residence. Later, Imam Layama’s house was looted and burnt by a violent mob.
After Djotodia seized power in a coup in March 2013 the interreligious delegation visited numerous villages gathering Muslim and Christian residents to demonstrate through their friendship that the conflict’s root cause is not religious. In some regions the tensions were almost tangible: when arriving in Bossangoa, a town 270 km north of the capital, Imam Layama was too afraid to even get out of the car. But the Archbishop and Pastor Guerekoyame-Gbangou stood beside him protecting him by calling him their brother.
In the crisis that the press in some countries even referred to as a “war of religions” the interfaith peacebuilding efforts aroused great attention. Being aware of the urgent need for security, the three religious leaders soon sought support of the international community. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whom they met on 13 March 2014 in New York, described their work as a “powerful symbol of their country’s longstanding tradition of peaceful coexistence”. Further high-level meetings followed soon. Invited for a discussion in Geneva with Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Imam Layama stressed the importance of ending impunity. Pillay assured them that she would further advocate for the deployment of a strong UN peacekeeping operation. In addition to the appointment with the Pillay, the liaison office of the World Evangelical Alliance in cooperation with CARITAS organized further relevant meetings, including a briefing with the Ambassador of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to raise awareness in the world’s Islamic community.
It is rare, that a religious delegation like the CAR’s interfaith platform receives such high political attention. Their trip to Washington D.C. prompted the U.S. state department in consultation with the Secretary General of Religions for Peace, Dr. William Vendley, to organize a mirror visit to the CAR. Inspired by the Central African interfaith platform, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, joined two other religious leaders, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, American Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, and Imam Mohamed Elsanousi, Director of Community Outreach for the Islamic Society of North to a peacekeeping trip in the beginning of April. In addition, only ten days after the CAR’s religious leaders came back from the last government visit in Berlin their main request was addressed: the UN Security Council approved the establishment of a 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission to demobilize, protect civilians, and support the government’s transition process (read more here).
How can a country that has been shaken to its very foundations be rebuilt? It is only through healing and reconciliation, as shown by the archbishop, pastor and imam, that CAR can rebuild itself, and that, stems from the midst of the people. Restoring trust and creating a new sense of responsibility for each other regardless of one’s faith will not be accomplished in a day. Pointing at the interreligious platform in the CAR, Christine Macmillan, World Evangelical Alliance's Senior Advisor for Social Justice said (it) “is re-echoing history with present day courage.” Building a society takes time but it always needs people who are brave enough to take the first steps to “disarm hearts.” Certainly this does not only apply to the situation in the CAR but also for us as Christians all around the world. Looking at the Prince of Peace as our example we are challenged to break down walls of prejudices, hatred, and bitterness and to approach everyone in a way that enables him or her to encounter the love of Christ, the ultimate key to reconciliation.
– Written by Rebekka Fiedler, WEA UN Geneva Liaison Office
Read also: Religious leaders’ quest for peace in the Central African Republic (UNHRC)