A Christian-Muslim crisis of faith in Africa

The last time the world watched Christians and Muslims kill each other by the thousands was in the 1990s during the Balkan wars. Now, two decades later, a similar massacre is occurring in the Central African Republic – and with a brutality just as shocking.

As with the Balkans, world leaders are again wringing their hands over how to stop the sectarian slaughter in the Central African Republic, an impoverished and landlocked country the size of Texas near the heart of Africa. They are hoping for local solutions.

Since early December, when a Muslim president was forced from office, Christian and Muslim militias have been engaged in religious cleansing of villages and town. About a quarter of the country’s 5 million people, which is majority Christian, have been displaced. Many more need food aid.

As the mass killing of people based simply on their faith has intensified, so too have international efforts to intervene. Some 7,000 troops from France and other African nations have so far tried to suppress the militias. But the United Nations is weighing whether to send more forces.

“Our common objective is to end the violence between Muslim and Christian communities,” says UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson. “We must act without delay.”

Even President Obama has spoken out, using a speech at this week’s annual National Prayer Breakfast to comment: “We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray, or who they love. Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, as we’ve seen in the Central African Republic recently, even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God.”

In the meantime, a new president, Catherine Samba-Panza, took office in late January promising to restore order. The government’s weak army, however, is up against a well-armed, Muslim-led coalition of forces called Séléka (“alliance”) and Christian militias called “anti-balaka” (anti-machete).

One glimmer of hope is the fact that a group of Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant leaders have banded together to remind people that their common faith, based on Abrahamic teachings, is one of peace. These clergy have also tried to persuade the militias to disarm, and on Monday they met with the local UN mission to coordinate efforts.

“We have no right to place religion at the center of a crisis, the suffering of a population,” said Kobine Layama, the imam who represents the Muslim minority. He has worked closely with Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga and other Christian leaders to calm the waters and restore the commonality long enjoyed between Muslims and Christians in the country.

A striking example of faith at work in the midst of violence occurred in the town of Boali. Since mid-January, the local priest, Xavier Fagba, has protected hundreds of Muslims inside St. Peter’s Parish Church. “Now is the time for men of good will to stand up and prove the strength and quality of their faith,” Father Fagba told a BBC reporter.

When local Catholics come to worship at the church, the Muslim families temporarily vacate the pews. In a recent sermon, the priest preached: “We cannot be silent and cower in the face of injustice, but must have courage. True Christians live a life of love and reconciliation, not bloodshed.”

Just how much these leaders can help quell the religious strife remains to be seen. But when the fighting is over, they will certainly be crucial for making the country whole again. They have laid the groundwork to restore a common faith between Christians and Muslims in the power of love.