Muslim and Christian communities in the Central African Republic (CAR) are separated by mutual fear and suspicion, and the chances of restoring social cohesion in the country are dwindling rapidly. Since December 2012, CAR has spiralled from a long-term crisis of poverty and chronic vulnerability into a complex humanitarian emergency. Almost the entire population of 4.6 million has been affected, with one in five forced to flee their homes. The widespread violence and insecurity has torn the social fabric of the country apart. Faith groups are separated not only by perception but increasingly by geography, as a large proportion of the Muslim population has fled to the north-east of the country or to neighbouring countries.
A deadly spiral
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. Since independence in 1960, it has had eight presidents, only one democratic transition and countless coups. Regimes have been characterised by exclusionary politics and clientelism, accentuating group divisions and reinforcing ethnic and regional cleavages. Despite this, diverse ethnic and religious communities had lived together for decades without major conflict arising from their faiths. Although Muslims, who comprise 15% of the population, dealt with day-to-day issues related to marginalisation and racial prejudice, most considered themselves integrated members of their communities. Inter-marriage between Muslims and Christians was common, and Muslims played crucial roles in trade and commerce. However, in the past year the country has been swept up in a surge of religious and ethnic violence led by majority Christian militia known as anti-balaka in response to atrocities committed by majority Muslim Seleka rebels when they took power in early 2013. Since December 2013, virtually all of the original Muslim population of Bangui has fled the capital, and the few who remain are sheltering in what has effectively become a ghetto. Muslim neighbourhoods throughout the country have been systematically targeted, and Muslims have been forced to flee the country or have relocated to remote and under-served regions of the north-east.
Their departure has had a severe practical impact. Markets have failed as transport networks and market intermediaries (roles traditionally played by members of the Muslim community) have disappeared. In Lobaye, CAFOD staff have recorded massive levels of food insecurity and malnutrition as farmers are unable to sell their produce or purchase essential items; in two market centres, communities have reverted to barter as all liquidity has been lost.
The national government launched an emergency plan for reconciliation in May 2014, but has struggled to implement it, citing lack of resources and UN support. In the space left by institutional breakdown, rumour and misinformation have spread, hindering progress towards social cohesion. Neither the government nor international peacekeeping forces have the capacity to protect civilians and stop the cycle of violence. Polarised and traumatised communities are increasingly expressing their desire for peace and reconciliation, but lack a safe space for dialogue.
Creating a space for dialogue
In recognition of increasing tensions between faith groups, in September 2013 the members of the national Inter-Religious Platform (IRP), Whilst the grouping of religious leaders is referred to internationally as the Inter-Religious Platform, its official title is La Platforme des Confessions Religieuses en Centrafrique the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, the national Caritas (CAFODs sister agency in CAR) and the Islamic Committee of the Central African Republic (Comité Islamique Centrafricain), organised assessment missions to raise public awareness of the importance of peaceful cohabitation and mutual respect. The IRP was created in December 2012, when former President Bozize began to incite Christians against Muslim communities, and has established itself as an interlocutor for peace at national and international level. Through the leadership of Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Imam Omar Kobine Layama and Pastor Nicolas Guérékoyame Gbangou, the IRP has attempted to engage the government of CAR, the National Transitional Council and the international community, denouncing groups active in the conflict and promoting harmonious co-existence between communities.
From the start of the conflict, the IRP has been instrumental in creating space for dialogue between religious communities. This interfaith approach is being replicated across the country by local religious leaders and affiliated womens and youth platforms. With the support of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the IRP has conducted a number of workshops in Bangui in social cohesion with leaders from the Protestant, Catholic and Muslim communities, reaching more than 200 religious and community leaders including women and youth leaders of religious associations, civil society leaders and militia members. These workshops have been emotionally charged experiences for all participants. The mediation process begins with binding and bonding activities that give individuals space, within their single-identity community, to express themselves freely and for personal trauma healing, providing a foundation for dialogue and collaboration with other identity groups.
By providing a space in which trauma can be addressed, the desire for revenge can be reduced. During one workshop, an imam who had not spoken to his Christian neighbours for weeks summoned the courage to give bread to the children of the Christian family living next door. The mother came out and, hesitant at first, thanked him and asked where his wife was. He told her that his wife had fled to Chad. The woman responded by offering to wash his clothes for him.
CRS has since replicated this successful model of social cohesion training throughout the north-west of the country, and has also organised trauma healing workshops and training of trainers in Mbomou and Haut-Mboumou provinces in the south-east, as part of the organisations USAID-funded Secure, Empowered, Connected Communities (SECC) project.
While the leaders of the Inter- Religious Platform are quick to state their belief that the conflict is not, at its core, religiously motivated, they hope that their work will remove religion as a threat to social cohesion and as a manipulation tool that some groups and politicians have tried to use to keep the conflict going. The social cohesion workshops have served to identify a number of root causes of the conflict, agreed upon by Muslim and Christian participants. In particular, participants in the workshops identified poverty (both spiritual and economic), a sense of exclusion and neglect and the need for youth engagement as well as a rejection of the other and a desire for revenge as the primary drivers of conflict between religious groups.
Religious leaders around the country, such as the Bishop of Mbaïki, have also been carrying out urgent and life-saving mediation in specific cases. However, in the absence of formal structures and state and international support, these efforts are difficult to sustain and extend. Impelled by the gravity of the crisis engulfing the country, and building on the momentum generated by activities already under way, the Inter-Religious Platform has invited CRS and faith-based organisations around the world to engage in collaborative initiatives to rebuild social cohesion in CAR. There is a need to strengthen, expand and decentralise the IRP, to extend its coverage at the prefecture and community level and to establish prefecturelevel inter-religious platforms which will work closely with the Community Social Cohesion Committees (CSCCs) that were formed as part of the CRS-led SECC project. These committees will map out community social cohesion resources, facilitate community dialogue and carry out community-level trauma awareness and social cohesion workshops. Where possible, CRS, in partnership with the IRP, intends to expand its coverage across CARs borders to refugee camps in Chad, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and establish CSCCs and interreligious platforms. These institutional structures will provide a platform for personal trauma healing workshops and facilitate community dialogues and dialogue between CSCCs in camps and home communities, laying the groundwork for the eventual return of refugees.
The turmoil that has overrun the CAR since the crisis began in December 2012 has torn the social fabric of the country apart. As elections scheduled for February 2015 approach, priority must be given to social cohesion, focusing on communities affected by violence, laying the groundwork for the eventual return of refugees and strengthening civil society groups. There is a clear need to scale up mediation and social cohesion projects between Christian and Muslim communities. Faith leaders and religious organisations have a key role to play in rebuilding social cohesion in the Central African Republic, but many challenges must be overcome. Attempts to disarm the population and militia groups have not succeeded and the Transitional Authority lacks the resources to exercise its power and bring communities together. In response, CRS has begun to actively build the capacity of the Transitional Authority, working with the Ministry of Social Cohesion.
The initiatives taken by religious leaders should be supported and strengthened by politicians and the international community. It is only by combining efforts that a lasting solution to the crisis can be achieved. International humanitarian actors working with communities in the Central African Republic should ensure that their actions are conflict-sensitive and do not increase tensions further. While it is important to protect civilians under threat and respect the wishes and concerns of Muslim communities, the relocation of these populations has increased tensions between the Transitional Authority and the international community and has separated faith groups and created single-identity communities. Preventative measures, reaching out to Muslim communities to ensure their protection in situ, should be a priority for the humanitarian community and international peacekeepers. CAFOD is currently working with Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid and the Muslim Charities Forum to implement an interreligious approach to working in CAR. Reconciliation will require a long-term approach which includes the physical disarmament of armed groups and addresses the root causes of the conflict. A greater focus on mediation and social cohesion is needed to disarm the hearts of communities and to ensure that this reconciliation process can lead to a return to peace.
Anthony Neal is Humanitarian Policy Assistant at CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development).