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Religious Leaders Work for Peace in Central African Republic
January 17, 2014

Man speaking at microphone
Rashad Hussain, U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

By Jane Morse
IIP Staff Writer
16 January 2014

Muslim and Christian leaders in the United States and Africa are searching for ways to work together to promote peace and reconciliation in the Central African Republic (CAR), a country now devastated by sectarian violence.

U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Rashad Hussain hosted an interreligious dialogue on January 7. It brought together via an online video conference from Bangui Archbishop of Bangui Dieudonné Nzapalainga; Imam Omar Cabinelayama, president of the CAR National Islamic Association; the Reverend Nicolas Geurekoyame, president of the CAR Evangelical Association; and Catherine Samapanza, mayor of Bangui.

They shared their ideas with their U.S. counterparts: Steve Hilbert, foreign policy adviser for Africa and global development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America.

Speaking through a French interpreter, Geurekoyame said the CAR Evangelical Association is trying to explain to church members that “this conflict is not religious, but instead it is fundamentally a political conflict.”

Cabinelayama said there is an urgent need to provide training to mediators engaged in reconciliation work. He called for teaching materials to help carry out this work.

Magid offered the services of the Islamic Society of North America — one of the largest Muslim organizations in North America — to engage religious groups in the CAR, its neighboring countries and the United States to help foster “healing and hope.” Hilbert noted that Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States, is already in the country working with youth to attenuate mistrust between Muslims and Christians.

Hussain said the 7 million people that make up the Muslim community in the United States “have worked to stand for justice when the rights of others are threatened.”

“The United States recognizes and greatly appreciates your efforts in promoting peace in the Central African Republic,” he told videoconference participants. “In addition to providing humanitarian assistance and support for the security efforts in CAR, we [the United States] are also promoting conflict mitigation and reconciliation efforts.”

President Obama spoke directly to the people of the CAR in an audio message released December 9, 2013, to underscore the importance of reconciliation between its people.

According to a White House fact sheet released December 5, 2013, the United States will provide the CAR with the following assistance:

• Subject to congressional notification, nearly $7.5 million to support conflict mitigation, reconciliation and peacebuilding, including interreligious peacebuilding efforts and the use of community radio to amplify peace messages and dispel rumors.

• $125,000 in funding from the U.S. State Department to create a network of local community and interfaith religious leaders to promote peace, conflict mitigation and reconciliation efforts.

Sectarian violence and a retaliatory cycle of killing are of serious concern to the international community, which fears the political instability in the CAR may increase bloodshed in the country and spread extremism throughout the region.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of December 9, 2013, one in 10 Central Africans — 533,000 people — had fled their homes, and one in five — 1.1 million people — did not have enough food to eat. On November 26, 2013, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said the CAR is “descending into complete chaos before our eyes” and presents a “profoundly important test to our international solidarity and our responsibility to prevent atrocities.”

In testimony delivered December 17, 2013, before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Africa, Earl Gast, assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Christians and Muslims have a history of peaceful relations in the CAR, but “the roots of conflict are in an imbalance of power, resources and governance.” The escalating violence, Gast said, is taking “a dangerous new turn toward deliberate attacks against civilian communities along religious lines.”

The United States is working with partners “to find a balance between expanding assistance into conflict areas and reducing the risk to humanitarian actors and beneficiaries,” he said.