In the face of the Iraq crisis, do not forget the Central African Republic

Every single person in my country is at risk. We need the world to help douse the flames of violence and retaliation.

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The Independent Online

While the world focuses its attention on religious extremism in Iraq, it is turning a blind eye to the horrific manipulation of religion that is tearing apart my country.

The situation in the Central African Republic has reached an unprecedented level of barbarism. Killings are commonplace and are carried out with impunity. Rape is being used as a weapon of war, children are recruited as soldiers, and people are being buried alive for “witchcraft”. 

The chaos began when a coalition of mostly Muslim rebel groups known as ‘Seleka’ seized power in March 2013. In September, militias known as ‘Anti-balaka’ launched a series of counterattacks, often targeting the Muslim population. Today, every single person in the country is at risk from the deadly cycle of violence and retaliation.

On 16 April 2014, I myself was abducted by Seleka, along with three of my priests. I was lucky to survive the ordeal. Many of my fellow brothers and sisters in faith have not been so fortunate. Two days after I was abducted, a priest from my diocese was shot six times by armed men as he made his way to his parish church. In May, three young Muslim men were horrifically killed, their genitalia and hearts removed, as they travelled to a reconciliation football match that was meant to bring communities closer together.

In retaliation, militia attacked the Church of Notre Dame de Fatima in Bangui, the capital city, killing many people. Young people erected barricades and thousands took to the street in protest, while gunshots echoed around the city.

For many months, the town of Bossangoa, where I have been bishop for two years, was held hostage by Seleka. My own church compound sheltered over 40,000 people who had fled their homes, with barely enough drinking water to go round. Although most people have now gone home, the community remains under constant threat. Aid agencies like CAFOD have helped us to provide food and water to people of all faiths, but the scale of the catastrophe is unimaginable, and it is growing worse by the day.

The appalling cycle of violence does not reflect our history: Muslims and Christians lived harmoniously together for decades, and marriages between people of different faiths used to be commonplace. Seleka and the Anti-balaka do not represent the faithful of either religion. In their ranks are heavily armed young men, afraid and enraged, who are often motivated by a responsibility to protect their communities, but who are subject to manipulation by those who aim to exploit the country’s wealth of natural resources.

From the start of this conflict we witnessed truck after truck of coffee, timber, and diamonds drive out from our borders, funding the deadly spiral of violence and fear. As a result we now witness truck after truck of people forced to leave their communities, the places they were born, because they no longer feel safe.

As we wait for UN peacekeepers to arrive in September, the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly. The leaders of the main faiths in the country have condemned the use of religion to divide communities, standing together in unity and preaching peace to all. The world must act now to support such peace initiatives.

That is why I have travelled from my diocese in Bossangoa to speak at the UN Human Rights Summit in Geneva and to meet with the British government and Parliamentarians in the UK, calling on them to support the transitional government to restore social cohesion and facilitate mediation between communities.

But we are running out of time. In November last year Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui addressed world leaders, praying that they “should not wait for this deadly conflagration to spread to your house before you act.” Since then the conflagration has grown far worse. Violence is spreading like wildfire across my country; it could spread across the region too. The world must help us douse the flames.

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