Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga (left), Imam Oumar Kobine Layama (centre) and Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou (right), pictured here in June 2017 exchanging copies of the Bible and Quran, have won international recognition for their peacekeeping efforts (World Watch Monitor)

The three top faith leaders of the Central African Republic (CAR), who have won international recognition for their efforts to end conflict in the country, have blamed foreign mercenaries for a recent upsurge in violence.

One month ago today, the relative calm enjoyed by the capital, Bangui, was shattered when armed men from the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of PK5 stormed a church during Mass, killing 17 including a prominent priest.

The violence that followed, the worst to hit the capital in recent years, brought back memories of the earliest days of the conflict, when Séléka rebels entered Bangui in March 2013, and the failed attempt by self-defence militias (known as Anti-balaka, or ‘Anti-machete’) to oust the rebels from the capital in December 2013.

Retaliatory attacks on the PK5 neighbourhood led to further deaths: officially 24 people were killed and 170 others were injured, but sources contacted by World Watch Monitor said the figures were higher. Two mosques were torched and many people saw their properties looted and set on fire.

Political and religious leaders were unanimous in their condemnation of the violence and called for restraint.

The recent upsurge of violence has also hit Bambari, CAR’s second city, where security forces have clashed with members of the UPC rebel group, formed predominantly of fighters from the now-disbanded Séléka. For years, Bambari was considered by the UN as a weapon-free city, where the presence of armed men was forbidden.

According to the UN’s United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 37,000 people have been displaced by the recent violence in Bambari and its neighbouring towns and villages, and that they are now living in nine camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Meanwhile, the cathedral in Bambari was looted, as were the local bases of nine non-governmental organisations, including the National Commission for Refugees.

‘Stop all negative interference’

In a ceremony at the Omni-Sport Stadium of Bangui last Friday, 25 May, the three clerics – the President of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance, Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and the President of the Islamic Council in CAR, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama – reiterated their belief that the crisis in the Central African Republic is not primarily an interfaith clash; instead, they said, the root of the conflict lies in the struggle for political power.

The three leaders had formed a joint interfaith platform in 2014 to fight against religious extremism and promote peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. Time Magazine named them among the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014, and the French magazine Le Monde called them “the three saints of Bangui.”

In their statement last week, read in the presence of high officials including Prime Minister Simplice Sarandji, the three leaders blamed years of bad governance in the country. They listed a number of issues, including corruption, exclusion, the lack of political inclusiveness and power sharing, and impunity.

Fr. Albert Toungoumalé-Baba was killed while presiding over Mass in Bangui on 1 May (Photo: Aid to the Church in Need)

The clerics also denounced the use of religion by certain political elites to achieve personal agendas.

They said some elites had ties with foreign mercenaries, who “shamelessly use fictitious division between Christians and Muslims to make divisions”, while their real objective is to take power and control natural resources.

The three clerics called on neighbouring Chad and Sudan, whose nationals have been identified among the mercenaries operating in Central African Republic, to “stop all negative interference”.

They also denounced the passivity of UN peacekeepers, whom they had called on for help in 2014, and their inability to perform their mandate of protecting civilians.

They accused some UN peacekeepers of refuelling armed groups with ammunitions or facilitating the transport of their troops, criticising their “inefficiency and lack of professionalism” and saying they “spend their time plotting with rebels” to commit criminal acts.

The inability of UN peacekeepers to curb the violence has been denounced by many, including local MPs and human right organisations. During a visit last October, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was questioned by MPs about the mandate of UN troops in CAR.

“How to explain that 12,000 men of the United Nations’ force are on the ground and that at the same time the civilian population continues to be massacred?” asked Karim Meckassoua, the President of the National Assembly. “What is the mandate of this force? Cannot we do better, and more?”

The leader of the opposition, Anicet-Georges Dologuélé, added: “We have all noted that some officials of the MINUSCA [UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic] maintained sympathies with warlords with regards to either culture or religion, [or out of] economic interests.”

The three clerics called on all armed groups to lay down their weapons and to stop the illegal exploitation of natural resources. They also called for a “frank and inclusive dialogue” to bring lasting peace.