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Central African Christians Suffer Under Islamist Coup

For first time, religion plays central role in war-prone Central African Republic.
Central African Christians Suffer Under Islamist Coup
Image: AfrikaForce/Flickr
Bangui, Central African Republic

(MSN) War is all-too-common in the Central African Republic (CAR), now on its fifth military coup in five decades. But for the first time, religion is playing a central role.

More than five months after Islamist rebels seized control of the Christian-majority CAR, Christians remain vulnerable to atrocities and the threat of imposition of Islamic law.

Rebel groups and Islamist mercenaries from Chad and Sudan joined forces in December to form a militant coalition called Seleka, which took the capital, Bangui, on March 24 and sent then-President Francois Bozize into exile in Cameroon. Seleka Islamist leader Michel Djotodia took over as president.

"It is clear, according to our research, that it is Christians who have been suffering under Seleka rule and Muslims have been profiting," Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in an email to Morning Star News from the lawless country yesterday, adding that Seleka agents "have not hesitated to attack Christian places of worship."

Mudge confirmed that Christian fears about the intentions of the new leaders are not unfounded. Djotodia made a pledge to impose sharia (Islamic law) in a 2012 request for support from the Saudi Arabia-based Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The request was contained in an April 17, 2012 letter addressed to the OIC and signed by Djotodia, who denies writing it; Morning Star News obtained a copy of the correspondence.

"God willing and we come to Bangui; we will put in place a regime to apply Islamic sharia law," Djotodia wrote in the letter, marked confidential, in which he requests material and financial support to overthrow the government of Bozize. "Even if we fail to hunt Bozize, we will transform a part of the Central African Republic, Chad and Darfur into a new Islamic Republic."

Muslims in Sudan's Darfur region and Chad support the CAR rebels' aims, Djotodia wrote.

"After our victory, we will also help them take power in Chad," he wrote. "We need your support, brothers. It should help us in material, money and homes. We agree that your items come to fight on our side."

When Catholic and evangelical leaders chanced upon a copy of the letter and forwarded it to the self-appointed president, he denied writing it, according to sources in CAR.

With Seleka attacking priests, pastors, nuns, church buildings and other Christian institutions, the letter brought tensions to a head. The leader of CAR's Evangelical Alliance, the Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame, is part of the National Transitional Council, created to act in place of the dissolved parliament; he and other leaders of the CAR Evangelical Alliance fired off a letter to Djotodia on May 10.

"The various atrocities that preceded, accompanied and followed Seleka's rise to power have been specifically aimed at the Christian population," says the letter, signed by Guerekoyame and Evangelical Alliance leaders Michel Gbegbe and Anatole Banga. "Churches and Christian institutions have been desecrated and plundered, priests and pastors have been assaulted and nuns raped."

The letter added that Seleka's actions have been characterized by "massive and unprecedented violations of human rights in the form of large-scale looting … killings and murders, threats and intimidation, abductions, torture and summary executions, rape of women including nuns, desecration of churches and religious institutions and violence against servants of God (priests and pastors in particular)."

The letter pointed out a Sunday morning when Seleka fighters visited a pastor outside Bangui and demanded that he "leave the area, for a mosque to be built in the place of his church."

Guerekoyame was arrested on Aug. 6 for criticizing the government from the pulpit at a church in Bangui, in spite of the immunity he is supposed to enjoy as a member of the National Transitional Council; he was released later that day.

There have been several reports that agents of the new CAR government selectively attack Christians, their villages and churches, while sparing Muslims, which account for less than 15 percent of the population of about 4.5 million people.

Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission, on Aug. 15 called for an immediate end to the breakdown of law and order, saying in a press statement that the assaults "highlight the targeting of Christians."

Yogarajah condemned the selective attack on Christians and their churches and called on the international community, including the global church, to rally round suffering CAR Christians and give them needed support.

Catholic bishops in the impoverished African country have similar views. In a May 5 statement by the president of the Catholic Bishops Justice and Peace Commission, Bishop Albert Vanbuel said church buildings and workers in the dioceses of Alindao, Bambari, Bangassou, Bossangoa and Kaga-Bandoro had been attacked and people traumatized while rebel alliance members "continue to kill each day."

"The population is living in permanent anguish, fear, pillage, rape, injustice, violence and the settling of scores," Vanbuel said, adding that the commission was "alarmed at the continuing acts of barbarity by Seleka elements, especially when power is held by one of them."

Djotodia has claimed that the atrocities are being carried out not by Seleka but by elements beyond his control.

Vanbuel denounced the new government in Bangui as "a rebellion of religious extremism with evil intentions, characterized by profanation and planned destruction of religious buildings, especially Catholic and Protestant churches."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are more than 206,000 displaced people within the country and 63,000 others that have fled to neighboring countries.

Mudge of HRW said that "the current situation in Central Africa Republic is fragile, and the humanitarian crisis verges on a catastrophe." Neighborhoods in Bangui, he said, "continue to be attacked and looted by Seleka; villages in the provinces are not spared as civilians are killed and homes are plundered and burned."

HRW documented more than 1,000 homes destroyed by Seleka outside the capital and scores of unarmed civilians killed in June alone.

"Behind all of this violence," Mudge said, "the humanitarian situation worsens. Because of a lack of security, humanitarian actors cannot access the most vulnerable; people continue to die in the bush due to disease, exposure and malnutrition."

Although CAR has suffered sporadic violence and a spate of military coups since independence from France in 1960, observers describe the latest violence as the worst ever.

Christians within and outside CAR have expressed fears over the direction of the Islamic-led government of Djotodia, who was officially sworn in on Aug. 18 with a mandate to complete a transition with an elected government in 18 months. Observers are skeptical of a successful transition given ongoing humanitarian, economic and political chaos in the country, and representatives of various groups are seeking ways and international support to prevent the imposition of sharia.

Editor's note: The full MSN article can be read here. CT has previously reported on the CAR's civil unrest, which has now caused Wycliffe Bible translators to suspend operations. CT also reported on clean water projects in the CAR, as well as the country becoming Joseph Kony's hideout.

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