YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon — Inter-religious wars in the Central African Republic, the excesses of the terrorist sect Boko Haram in Cameroon, and a steep rise in Christian revivalist movements are rapidly changing the religious landscape in the Central African sub-region, and paving the way for religious intolerance.
In the Central African Republic, the fight for political control became increasingly religious with the Muslim Seleka rebels wresting control of the capital Bangui in 2013 and looting, raping and killing the Christian–dominated Anti-Balaka.
But when the Christians seized back the capital months later, they committed the same crimes against the Muslims.
In Cameroon and Chad, the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram has become a source of continued attacks, killing at least 500 civilians since it started cross-border attacks in 2013.
Across the entire area, a rise in Pentecostal movements and their extremist ideologies has taken sway.
“The Central African sub-region is in crisis, and these crises are an expression of hate,” says the 86-year-old Archbishop emeritus of Douala in Cameroon, Cardinal Christian Tumi.
“If I love my brother, if I love my sister, I won’t take up a gun to kill him,” he added.
In view of the troubling situation, some 80 Catholic bishops from the Central African Sub-region along with representatives from other Christian denominations and Muslim communities came together in Yaoundé for the 11th Forum of the Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa, with ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue at the center of their discussions.
The bishops and their guests discussed “Islam in Central Africa today,” traditional African religions and inter-religious dialogue,” “Christianity, Islam and Politics,” as well as “dialogue between the Catholic Church and the different Islamic currents in Central Africa.”
Coming at a time when the Boko Haram attacks are frequently blamed on Islam, causing anti-Islamic sentiments across the region, Islamic leader Cheick Djibril Oumarou was quick to point out that Islam remains a religion of peace.
“Those who kill in the name of Islam simply don’t understand what Islam means,” he said.
He pointed out Boko Haram has targeted mosques and Muslims at prayer in their attacks.
“If it were about Muslims attacking non-Muslims, then how come Allah’s followers are also targets for elimination?” he asked.
He then referred to a 2014 public opinion poll on public attitudes toward ISIS that were published in three Arab countries for the Fikra Forum. The findings demonstrated a rejection of terrorist ideologies by the Muslim nations in which the polls were conducted: In Egypt, only three percent of respondents held favorable views of ISIS; in Saudi Arabia, the figure was five percent; In Lebanon, less than one percent.
“So, it is right we call terrorists who they really are: Ruthless killers,” he said. “They are simply giving Islam a bad name.”
The Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, agreed, noting that “God created all men for life. He who kills cannot use religion to justify his action. Neither in the Koran nor in the Bible is it recommended to kill. It is ignorance and fanaticism that leads people to kill.”
Participants at the Yaoundé meeting recommended inter-religious dialogue as the way forward for the sub-region.
“We want to eradicate extremism for the good of the sub-region,” said Bishop Bienvenu Manamika Bafouakouahou of the Diocese of Dolisie in the Republic of Congo.
Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Douala, Cameroon, added “we need to create structures that will foster dialogue in the sub-region. It doesn’t matter whether you are Christian or Muslim or Protestant…we are all created by the same God. And because God is love and we are created in his image, we intrinsically love people.”
Bishop Bala’s Ghost Hangs Over the Conclave
The meeting was, however, haunted by the ghost of the Bishop of Bafia, Jean-Marie Benoît Balla.
Bala, 58, disappeared from his residence on the night of May 31, 2017. His car was found parked on a bridge over the Sanaga river, a couple of miles from his residence. A note, purportedly written by the bishop saying simply “I am in the water,” was placed inside the car, along with his personal documents.
His body was found floating in the river by a Malian fisherman near Monatélé on June 2, over 10 miles from the bridge.
Postmortem examinations were carried out on the bishop by local medical examiners on June 2 and June 22. The results were never published.
Another examination was sought, and the international police agency INTERPOL sent a team of experts to perform another autopsy.
The INTERPOL team concluded that “drowning was the most probable cause of the bishop’s death.”
The nation’s bishops have rejected these results, and claimed Bala “was brutally assassinated.”
They repeated this accusation during the meeting, and said they would take legal action against the bishop’s killers.