Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic Share Shelter as Renewed Fighting Displaces Thousands

President Faustin-Archange Touadera, center, arrives to cast his vote at the Lycee Boganda polling station in the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020.(AP Photo)

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — Christians and Muslims in the besieged Central African Republic have taken shelter together in houses of worship in the country as renewed rebel violence forces thousands out of their homes.

“With the fighting, many people found refuge in the churches," Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo-Aziagbia, president of the Central Africa Catholic Bishops Conference, told Religion News Service.

Nongo-Aziagbia estimates that in the city of Bangassou there are about 500 Muslims sheltering alongside Christians in Catholic churches. In the city of Grimri, he said, about 1,500 Muslims and Christians are sheltering in churches, and five churches are hosting people in the town of Bouar. 

The surge in violence comes as the six largest armed rebel groups in CAR joined forces in December under the banner of Coalition of Patriots for Change and began launching attacks around the country in the lead-up to the presidential election that month. The coalition is made up of both pro-Christian and Muslim rebel groups, some of whom once fought each other. 

The incumbent, President Faustin-Archange Touadera, was reelected, but the CPC disputes the results and contends they were invalid because of disrupted turnout. Touadera's government is blaming the former president, Francois Bozize, for the renewed violence. Bozize ruled the country from 2003 to 2013, when he was overthrown by the Muslim rebel group Seleka, and he was barred from the Dec. 27 election. He has denied the allegations.

The CPC has taken control of two-thirds of the country outside the capital of Bangui, and this most recent attack seemed to be an effort to take control of that city. On Monday (Jan. 25), CAR troops, along with Russian and Rwandan allies, announced they had killed 44 members of the rebel coalition in Boyali, a village about 60 miles from the capital.

“The new wave of violence and displacement is increasing the humanitarian needs at a time when the Central Africa people are already dealing with the consequence of COVID-19 pandemic and years of conflict and insecurity,” said Fran Equiza, CAR UNICEF representative.

CAR — a central African country where the majority are Christians — has been the center of interfaith peace action, with Christian and Muslim leaders together calling for peace and dialogue. In 2015, Pope Francis visited Bangui and delivered a message of peace in the city's main mosque, which had been besieged by a Christian militia.

The pope’s visit boosted interfaith efforts, but those gains are now threatened by this new wave of attacks. Even so, the coalition's makeup of both pro-Christian and Muslim rebel groups has created a new dynamic. According to Francis Kuria Kagema, the general secretary of the African Council of Religious Leaders, the new coalition is reducing the widely held view that the CAR conflict was religious.

“This helps dispel concerns that the faiths are fighting in the country. However, we are strongly opposed to any attempts to seize power by force. There needs to be a negotiated settlement. All players have to be on board,” said Kagema in an interview.

The coalition includes remnants of the Muslim Seleka rebel group and the majority Christian anti-Balaka rebel group, in what analysts describe as a marriage of convenience. The two were once enemies. Seleka had overrun the country in 2013, burning down and looting churches and Christian institutions as it rampaged toward the Capitol, where the group overthrew Bozize (a Christian), triggering an anti-Balaka backlash and igniting a deadly conflict and years of unrest.

This latest wave of violence has caused massive displacement of populations and forced nearly 200,000 people — half of them children — to flee from their homes, according to UNICEF.  Nongo-Aziagbia described people hiding in bushes and children forced out of school. It has also disrupted economic, agricultural and transport activities.

“This hindrance to the free movement of people and goods worsens the food and health situation of the population, already severely affected (by) multiple crises,” said Nongo–Aziagbia in an early January statement.

The conflict has also become a “playfield” for international politics. Russia has increased its presence in the country rich with diamonds, gold and uranium, as well as oil. Moscow has been sending weapons, contractors and advisers to the CAR government. A Russian mining company has also been introduced in CAR and an airfield in the Ouadda region allocated to Russia. Rwanda has also deployed soldiers to quell election violence and protect peace.

“Our country is full of wealth — minerals and raw material, which are the object of all forms of greed,” said Nongo-Aziagbia. “We call for strong, constructive and beneficial agreements and an end to all the parallel and mafia-like networks of certain predators.”

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

One third of Americans don’t identify as Christian. IFYC VP Amber Hacker explains how to offer a more equitable approach to time off.
Are Gen Z protestors inspired by spiritual concerns? Are or they indifferent to religion and spirituality? A recent study sheds some light.
Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president of the United States, after John F. Kennedy, and displays his faith openly, often wearing a rosary and attending Mass routinely. This will be his first encounter with Francis since becoming president.
The 17 kidnapped adults and children are from Amish, Mennonite and other Anabaptist Christian communities in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ontario, Canada. 
My cousin, a prayer leader in the Ismaili Muslim community, served at the center of civic and communal life. In mourning his death, we are reminded of what faith communities and religious traditions do so well.
Our top 10 picks feature a guide to interfaith workplaces, a reflection on how the 'Dune' novel draws on Islamic motifs, and an interfaith friendship in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.
"It should be no surprise that I think religion is essential" to being inclusive, IFYC founder Eboo Patel writes. "What struck me is the number of other people who seemed to agree."
Religious leaders called on President Joe Biden and congressional lawmakers to pass the John Lewis Act and other voting rights legislation.
"I want to do the work of a theologian that takes seriously reading Black texts as sacred texts and Black life as sacred history," Stewart said.
Pope Francis has turned Twitter into a prophetic medium. It is his way of getting the Gospel message out to the world.
The Duniverse, as some fans call it, is heavily influenced by ecology and sociology — as well as imagery from the Islamic world and the Middle East.
The gathering was one stop on a spiritual convoy to San Francisco, where a court will hear an appeal the group has filed to keep land in Arizona from being transferred to a mining company.
University leaders say they will use the gift to fund new faculty positions and build laboratories. Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a small denomination based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Our top 10 religion stories ask: Can college kids get along? Does "Midnight Mass" respect religion? And is there a Torah of Ted Lasso?
The expansion is fueled by concerns over political polarization on college campuses, an infusion of funds from foundations interested in bridge-building, and a merger with IFYC, which has a track record facilitating interfaith engagement.
The home temple, or puja mandir, has been part of Hindu culture for centuries. Even for those who are not very religious, it can be a space for meditation and reflection.
Feeling broken and betrayed by God after her son Beau died, the First Lady said her spirits lifted inside a Baptist church. "I felt for the first time that there was a path for my recovering my faith."
Applications open October 1, and grants are available to educators doing important work that engages religious diversity to combat systemic racism, inside and outside the classroom.
On loan from the Library of Congress, the historic English-language Quran, printed in London in 1764, will be the first object in a display that honors U.S. founding principles.
Ancient rabbis imagined the great chain of tradition, that went from generation to generation, as a ball that is tossed, playfully, from teacher to student. Is there a "Lasso Torah" inside a television show about a fish-out-of-water Midwestern football coach?
Studies show houses of worship have provided solace during the pandemic, but companies across the U.S. are struggling to respond to requests for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.