In Central African Republic, ‘trying to disarm both heart and mind’

By Benedikt Winkler
Briefing to Donors

For years, rebel groups in the Central African Republic have been fighting for power and raw materials. The “Séléka,” a rebel group primarily made up of Muslims, toppled the corrupt government of Francois Bozizé in March of 2013. In response to the group’s looting and killing, the “anti-Balaka” was formed, a group primarily made up of Christians—but no less violent. More than one million people have since fled the country or have become IDPs, often seeking shelter in churches and mosques. French military intervention and UN peacekeeping missions restored a measure of calm, allowing for the election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in early 2016. However, over the past few months, the violence has flared up again. Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, the country’s capital, and at 50 the Church’s youngest cardinal, surveys the situation.

What did the papal visit to the Central African Republic in 2015 achieve for Christians and Muslims?

The Pope brought peace and hope by visiting Christians and Muslims and bringing them all together in the stadium. His visit was an unforgettable event. The evening before, you couldn’t even get within a few miles of what is called the Muslim ghetto of Bangui, but the Pope went in. When he came out again, it was like the Crossing of the Red Sea: just as the Jews passed through the Red Sea, many Muslims followed the pope on foot or on motorcycles—without being afraid. That was a liberation, an absolute miracle.

Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga meets with his faithful

How are things in Bangui today?

Today, you can come and go as you please in that particular district: the pope went to the Muslims to liberate them from the prison that this district had become. Today, people can go anywhere in the capital city, to the east, the west, the north and the south, which is something they were once not able to do. That isn’t something that should be disregarded. And we believe that the visit of the Pope got the whole world interested in the Central African Republic. Because we had television stations from all over the world there, following the papal visit from that initial event in the mosque, which showed that religion is not the problem. On the contrary, the Pope urged the religions to work together to find a solution together. We all share the same progenitor, whose name is Abraham—our father in faith. The same can be said about the Koran and the Bible: we have everything we need to join forces and set out on the road to peace.

You are one of the three “saints of Bangui”…

Now, that whole thing about the “saints” was the doing of the French newspaper Le Monde. The people at the newspaper apparently believe we are saints just because we act like brothers and want to overcome division. The other two are Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic, and Imam Omar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council. The three of us worked together to build up a forum so that we could say: the word “religion” means “to join together.”

How can you as religious leaders influence rebel groups such as the Séléka and the anti-Balaka?

We appeal to their conscience. We do not have any weapons. Our weapon is the Word of God. We are men of the Word of God. We go and knock on the gate to the hearts of these men and women. The people can either accept this or not. It is our job and duty to tell them: thou shalt not kill. And this is what we do when we see people who are killing. We say to them: no, you don’t have the right to kill. God doesn’t want you to kill. And we have to say this to them, and tell them to put down their weapons. We try to disarm their hearts and minds.

What is the political situation in the Central African Republic under the presidency of Touadéra?

Our country is not suffering a religious crisis, but a military and political one. There are those who use religion as an instrument to gain power and access to natural resources, such as gold and diamonds. The state has become very weak in Central African Republic: 14 of 16 prefectures are controlled by rebels. The rebel leader is the one who holds the real power. He can decide whether a person should live or die.

What do you believe needs to be done to ensure that there is more justice and less corruption in the country?

Victims deserve to see justice done. There are civilians who have lost everything. And there are people who have killed and who need to admit that to themselves. The belief that there is a lot of money to be gained by corruption—that notion needs to be repudiated. Law and order need to be restored. We would like to see everyone being held to the laws. We would like to see those who kill people be put in jail. However, at the moment murder is exempt from punishment. Those who kill, don’t go to jail. And nothing changes. Justice must therefore be restored. People are killed for money, for diamonds, for anything and everything. The ones who have the guns are the ones making the decisions.

What should be done?

You have to set fixed goals for people. Our problems are also caused by the natural resources. Central African Republic is a country with vast natural resources. People come from all over the world to profit from this and sell the natural resources—to Sudan, Cameroon or Chad. Since the state has no control over anything anymore, the rebels can sell the diamonds in foreign countries and grow rich. The state remains poor. This is why we need to put an end to this situation. We have to build roads, schools and health centers.

Cardinal Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Kobine Layama

What does it mean to be a Catholic in Central Africa?

I often say to people that the Catholic Church is an all-inclusive Church and that means: diversity. And if I am really Catholic, then I also need to take in Muslims and do something good for them, I also need to do something good for Protestants. They are all children of God. And that is what we did during the crisis. The imam stayed with me for six months. And when the Church supports us here, then it is our job to build bridges between the religions, to the Protestants and the Muslims. We sit down together to pray together; we sit down together to talk about our fears and act together.

You also talk about fear?

Yes, absolutely. There are a large number of refugee camps in the interior of the country. The people cannot go out on the fields to work. The people can’t go fishing; they are afraid no matter where they go because there is no such thing as safety. And they are confined to their camps. This is why I said that the situation is so catastrophic. The Church is there on site, at the side of these people to continue to support them and to stand by them. We are able to do our work thanks to the support of the worldwide Church and its aid organizations, such as Aid to the Church in Need.

Benedikt Winkler writes for Die Tagespost, Germany’s only national Catholic newspaper, which is owned by the country’s bishops.

Support the Suffering Church