YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Religion is now being used to “sow hatred” and “divide the country” in the Central African Republic, according to the nation’s Catholic bishops and Islamic religious leaders.

The country has experienced instability since 2013, when Seleka, a Muslim-majority militia movement, overthrew the government. The Christian-dominated Anti-Balaka militia then formed to fight the Seleka. French and African peacekeepers were deployed in January 2014 and drove the Seleka forces from the capital, Bangui.

With a newly elected government unable to move beyond Bangui, armed groups and militias have taken control of more than 70 percent of the country.

“We draw the attention of Central Africans to avoid revenge that could lead to genocide and therefore to the realization of a hidden program to divide us. Be vigilant to avoid manipulation,” the bishops wrote in a new pastoral statement called “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?”

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The country’s imams also issued a statement saying, “acts of violence that have been happening for some time in Central Africa are aimed at turning the political crisis into a confessional crisis.”

The imams reminded people of the secular nature of the state “and the freedom of worship guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Christians make up about 80 percent of the population of the Central African Republic, and Muslims about 15 percent.

The Muslim population is concentrated in the north of the country that touches on the Sahel region of Africa, although there are many Muslim traders in the south.

The southern city of Bangassou has become a flashpoint in the conflict. The Catholic cathedral in the city has become home to some 2,000 Muslims who live under the protection of the Catholic bishop, Spaniard Juan José Aguirre Muñoz.

The United Nations says the conflict has left at least 1.1 million people destitute and homeless, with about 2.5 million people – more than half of CAR’s four million inhabitants – now in need of humanitarian assistance.

There have in recent months been an increasing number of attacks against churches and mosques as well as the killing and abduction of religious leaders in the country.

In May 2017, the imam of Bangassou was assassinated along with several of his followers. In October, several Muslims were killed during prayers in Kembé, also in the south of the country.

On March 21, 2018, Father Joseph-Désiré Angbabata was killed by gunmen in Séko, along with several worshippers.

The capital Bangui – usually the most peaceful part of the country – experienced a coordinated attack on May 2, which centered on the Notre Dame of Fatima parish. A priest and over a dozen parishioners were killed in the attack.

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The country’s religious authorities have long sought to avoid painting the conflict as religion-based, and blamed external forces for trying to divide the country.

The country’s bishops have emphasized the need to “correct the confusion propagated by some national and foreign media giving the impression that the conflict has to do with religion, whereas it is above all else, a political and military conflict.”

“What we have in the Central African Republic is not a religious war,” the Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, told Crux last year.

“No Christian or Muslim leader leads any of these extremist groups,” he said. “If it were an inter-religious conflict, then you wouldn’t see Christian leaders sheltering Muslims fleeing conflict, and Muslim leaders sheltering Christians.”

The cardinal called it “a political and economic war; people are fighting over land and mineral resources.”

It is a position shared by the Imam of Bangui, Omar Kobine Layama. In an exclusive interview with the local news site, atlasinfo.fr he emphasized “this war isn’t an inter-religious war.”

“It is a war for power. Religion is only used as an alibi and we denounce this instrumentalization of religion. No Muslim or Christian leader has called on Central Africans to take up arms against Muslims or Christians. For us, it is a political conflict even if our churches and mosques have been defiled,” Layama said.

The United Nations envoy has also warned that “those who seek private gains through violence” are the main threat to the country.

The UN Special Representative to the country, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga – who also heads the UN Stabilization Mission in the CAR, known as MINUSCA – said restoring government authority is “key” to peace in the country, both now and in the long-term.

“The country cannot afford more clashes among armed groups seeking opportunity to pillage and exploit natural resources,” he told the UN Security Council on June 21.

“It is important and essential that the State administration be increasingly visible and effective in the interior of the country,” Onanga-Anyanga said.

Pope Francis visited Bangui in 2015 and met with Muslim leaders, emphasizing the need for inter-religious peace and dialogue.