Lamenting that child soldiers who should be in school in the Central African Republic “have been given guns instead of pens,” Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga of Bangui, the national capital, said that violence in the country has “sacrificed” a whole generation of promising youth.

Speaking exclusively to Crux in Yaounde in neighboring Cameroon, Nzapalainga spoke of a “lost generation” in his war-torn nation.

“Children should not be carrying arms. They should be in school,” he said, before describing the youths as “a lost generation, because they are born into violence.”

Frequently drugged, Central Africa’s young people are manipulated by politicians to take up arms against segments of the society, thereby “creating tensions between Christians and Muslims,” the cardinal explained, in attempts to dispel the perception that the conflict in the CAR is a conflict of religions.

In this Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 photo, Bangui Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga blesses Catholic faithful as he visits an aid distribution point inside a makeshift camp housing an estimated 100,000 displaced people, at Mpoko Airport in Bangui, Central African Republic. (Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell.)

The cardinal drew parallels with what the Boko Haram insurgents are doing in Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Niger.

“They force children to wear bombs and explode,” he said. “That is not the face of religion in these countries.”

Stressing the non-religious nature of the conflict, Nzapalainga told Crux that “those who give out weapons are not imams, pastors or priests … people do not fight for the Koran or the Bible. They fight for diamond, gold, cows, to make money; they fight for political positioning, but in doing so, they use young people as sacrificial lambs.”

He said politicians give young people money and tell them to attack their opponents, and, in the face of excruciating poverty, many lack the moral strength to reject such offers.

According to the United Nations, armed groups have recruited an estimated 10,000 orphaned children as fighters in the CAR.

A spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, Marixie Mercado, told a news conference in Geneva that recruitment is happening on all sides, with reasons including poverty, despair, desire for revenge, and the general lack of options for children.

There have been multiple reports of girls being used as sex slaves.

Violence as a means of acquiring political power has long been a part of the culture in the CAR. But the current crisis escalated in 2013 when a mainly Muslim coalition, called the Séléka, overthrew then-President François Bozizé, accusing the government of failing to abide by a 2007 peace deal.

The rebel leader, Michel Djotodia, then declared himself president. A predominantly Christian local defiance group known as the anti-Balaka rose up in defiance of his rule, and what became widely perceived as an inter-religious conflict followed.

Fighting between the two groups intensified, and, in September 2013, Djotodia disbanded the Séléka coalition that brought him to power because the movement had become too divided. Djotodia himself resigned in January 2014, giving power to the then Mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza.

A cease-fire agreed by the two camps in Brazzaville in July in 2014 didn’t last. By the end of the year, the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka were controlling the South and West of the country, and the mostly Muslim ex-Seleka controlled the north and east. The central government thus had little real control.

“Outside the capital Bangui, power rests in the hands of armed groups,” Nzapalainga said. “They control the transport infrastructure, they control the tax system, and they control everything. Government has soldiers, but they are badly trained and ill-equipped.”

Over a dozen armed groups control large parts of the country, exercising authority in various sectors, generally including economic activity.

The CAR has known several conflicts since independence in 1960 and multiple attempts at peace, but reconciliation has remained elusive. The latest effort came in June, when a peace deal between the government and 13 armed groups was signed. That happened in the confines of an ancient gilded room in Rome belonging to the Community of Sant’Egidio, a movement known for its active role in conflict resolution.

The signatories said the document was a “road map” towards a solution to the crisis that was meant to open “the path to pacification in the Central African Republic.” But the accord lasted only 24 hours, with fighting then erupting in areas such as Bangassou, Alindao, and Bria regions.

Nzapalainga was reported to have initialed the peace agreement, but later denied any involvement, criticizing it for leaving “the door open to impunity for the perpetrators of violence.”

However, he welcomed all initiatives intended to bring peace to the troubled country.

“The Church has always stood for non-violence,” he told Crux. “Christ tells us that he who kills is in darkness, and if I succeed to tell someone to drop their gun, then I have won a soul.”

He said the Church has done enormous work to bring hope to the afflicted. It opens church doors to those fleeing the violence, and has mobilized the international community to come and help.

“People have donated food, clothes, and some charities have contributed funds so we continue providing for those who have lost everything,” he said.

Remarkably young for a cardinal at 50, when Nzapalainga was named a Prince of the Church by Pope Francis in November 2016, he was the very first born after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65.)