Religious persecution would be a much easier story to tell if it were always a straightforward matter of villains and victims, of innocents being brutalized by extremists and fanatics. Certainly Christians, alarmed by reports of violence directed at their fellow believers, would prefer to keep the narrative simple.
The truth, however, is that things are often more complicated, and there’s no better place to illustrate that point than the Central African Republic.
A landlocked nation the size of Texas, whose population of 4.6 million is 80 percent Christian with most of the rest Muslim, the Central African Republic has been home to one of the world’s bloodiest civil conflicts over the past three years.
In all, more than 6,000 people have been killed and a quarter of the population has been displaced. Today there are more than 400,000 refugees and 300,000 internally displaced people.
In 2013 the Seleka rebel group, whose name means “alliance,” was formed by disaffected Muslim military and political leaders. The insurgents quickly took control of the capital, Bangui, and just as promptly their mission bled into sectarian killings, with the Muslim rebels slaughtering mostly Christian civilians, often by burning them alive.
In a nation where Christians form the overwhelming majority, they weren’t inclined to take the Seleka’s brutality lying down.
Led by veterans of the country’s security forces, Christians created their own militias, called “anti-balaka” groups, taking their name from a weapon that combines a machete with an AK-47.
Although ostensibly created for defensive purposes, these Christian armed bands became steadily more aggressive. Reports suggest they began launching reprisal killings against Muslim civilians, and eventually wanted to expel Muslims from the country entirely.
In May 2015, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power reported that almost all of the country’s 436 mosques had been destroyed, describing the violence as “kind of crazy, chilling.”
The Christian militias carried the fight to such an extremes that in December 2014, the United Nations accused them of carrying out ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim population, while conceding that there was no proof of “genocidal intent.”
Yet even in the midst of such carnage, there are impressive examples of religious leaders on both sides trying to foster peace.
The best-known example is offered by the “three saints of Bangui”: The Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame Gbangou, president of the Central Africa Republic’s Evangelical Alliance; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the country’s Islamic Council, and the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Diedonné Nzapalainga.
Since the violence began, the three leaders have organized prayer sessions, rotating the encounters to include the Catholic cathedral, the great mosque, and Protestant churches. They’ve promoted “peace schools,” where children of different religions study together, as well as mixed health care centers open to everyone.
This is a real friendship, not just a string of photo-ops.
In December 2013, when Christian militias attacked the Muslim neighborhood where Layama lived, Nzapalainga invited the imam and his family to move into his personal residence at St. Paul’s Parish. They remained there for five months.
“When the life of a brother is threatened, we must provide assistance,” Nzapalainga said, adding that the experience “brought us a lot closer.”
In late November, Pope Francis defied fears for his own safety by visiting the Central African Republic. The pontiff was so determined that he semi-jokingly told his Alitalia pilot on the way to Africa that if he didn’t feel safe landing in the war-torn country, he should just give Francis a parachute.
During a visit to the central mosque in the capital city of Bangui, located in a neighborhood considered a no-go zone even for international observers, Francis called both Muslims and Christians to peace.
“Those who claim to be men of God must also be men and women of peace,” the pope said. “Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge, and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself.”