When rebel forces, led by Arab-speaking Muslims, seized control of the Central African Republic this March, it deepened fears that a co-ordinated Islamist insurgency could now be spreading through swathes of the continent. Four months on, the landlocked country is living through a reign of terror, largely directed against its Christian minority.
“Churches have been routinely robbed and pillaged here, while Muslim mosques have been left untouched,” Mgr Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, secretary-general of the Central African Republic’s Catholic bishops’ conference, told me in an interview. “Our public institutions aren’t functioning and our hospitals have been ransacked, leaving the sick and destitute without care. This is why we’re urgently seeking help in restoring and maintaining peace.”
The insurgents, calling themselves Seleka (“Alliance”), launched their offensive last December after accusing President François Bozizé of reneging on promises to share power, and captured the capital, Bangui, on March 26, helped by fighters from Chad and Sudan.
In a letter in May, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the country’s most senior Catholic, condemned the recruitment of child soldiers and rape of girls by Seleka forces, and urged the new self-proclaimed president, Michel Djotodia, to declare “Seleka’s true intentions” towards Christians.
With little infrastructure left, some observers think Seleka’s fighters and mercenaries are being allowed to live from the spoils of war, and to establish Islam by looting and destroying Christian communities.
“This is a rebellion of religious extremism with evil intentions, characterised by the profanation and programmed destruction of Christian buildings,” the Church’s Justice and Peace Commission noted in a May report.
“We count on the responsibility of the country’s new authorities and their sense of patriotism to see how this crisis is weakening social cohesion, and to bring all perpetrators of crime to justice, with reparation and compensation for victims. It seems Beelzebub, chief of all demons, now inhabits the hearts of certain daughters and sons of this country.”
The assault on the Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest states, has been only the latest in a pattern of Islamist-linked violence.
In Mali, ethnic Tuareg rebels overran most northern provinces during 2012, operating alongside Ansar Edine, which was recruited from Islamist fighters driven out of neighbouring Libya by the bloody fall of Muammar Gaddafi. France, the former colonial power, intervened this January to prevent the insurgents from seizing more of the country after imposing strict Shariah law and vandalising towns such as the fabled Timbuktu. By April, the hi-tech French contingent, backed by fighter jets, had pushed the rebels back to the mountainous Algerian border and begun withdrawing, leaving security in the hands of troops from neighbouring African states under a United Nations mandate.
Yet, with guerrilla operations continuing, alongside sporadic attacks on churches and presbyteries, leaders of Mali’s Catholic minority fear the Islamists could still regroup. The bishops’ conference backed the French intervention, and promised acting president Dioncounda Traoré to help “mobilise the Christian community” to help secure Mali’s future.
But the conference’s secretary-general, Fr Edmond Dembele, told me he feared “acts of revenge” against Tuareg and Arab citizens, as local people began to “confuse ethnicity with rebellion”.
Mali’s Catholic archbishop, Mgr Jean Zerbo of Bamako, was ready to work with the High Islamic Council, Fr Dembele said, and “act as a bridge” between the discontented northerners and the sub-Saharan population of the south.
“But it will take at least a year to repair what was destroyed and replace what was taken away,” the bishops’ conference secretary-general said. “For this, we’ll also need justice, reconciliation and forgiveness.”
Those qualities will be needed elsewhere too. Horrific scenes have become common in northern Nigeria, where an anti-western Islamist movement, Boko Haram, formed in 2001, has massacred Christians in a campaign to impose Sharia nationwide.
Christian leaders welcomed the Nigerian government’s spring declaration of a state of emergency in parts of the north. But some prominent churchmen, including Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos, president of Nigeria’s Catholic bishops’ conference, have publicly doubted whether it can stem the violence.
There have been signs the Islamist campaign could be spreading to Kenya, where Islamists linked to al-Qaeda promised revenge after local troops invaded neighbouring Somalia two years ago to help quell another Muslim insurgency there.
Meanwhile, in the Tanzanian city of Arusha in May a Catholic parish was attacked, leaving three dead and 60 injured. The blast, during the Mass to dedicate a new church, narrowly missed maiming the Vatican’s nuncio, Archbishop Francisco Padilla. Although religious leaders quickly came together, Christian-Muslim tensions have been growing here too.
In February, a Catholic priest, Fr Evarist Mushi, was shot dead on the predominantly Muslim island of Zanzibar during a spate of attacks on churches.
Last autumn, 120 Muslims were arrested, including Sheikh Issa Ponda, head of Tanzania’s Council of Imams, after Islamist protesters attacked five churches in the main city, Dar es Salaam. Many observers think the wave of violence reflects attempts to implement a 1989 Islamist “Abuja Declaration”, which called for Islamicisation throughout Africa. The declaration, issued by the Nigeria-based Islam in Africa Organisation, with member-groups in some 20 countries, demanded the eradication of Christianity and the continent-wide imposition of Sharia. It also called for only Muslims to be elected to political offices and appointed to “strategic national and international posts”.
Preaching at the funeral of the Arusha victims, the president of Tanzania’s Catholic bishops’ conference, Bishop Tarcisius Ngalalekumwta, criticised “violent propaganda” by Muslim leaders, including recent complaints that Tanzania was “governed in a Christian way”.
“These recent campaigns can’t be seen as isolated or separate. Christian-Muslim relations have always been cordial here, which is why we conclude the latest violence must reflect interference from outside,” the Swahili-speaking bishop told me later. “Ordinary Muslims have nothing against the Christian religion and Catholic faith – the only ones who do are fundamentalists, pressed and influenced from outside. But we’re all affected by the intimidation, and are meeting and praying to encourage each other.”
In the Central African Republic, Catholic groups joined other civic organisations in a mid-June appeal, which talked of summary executions, torture, rape, looting and disappearances. The statement said the country could soon become a haven for terrorist groups as “the Somalia of central Africa”.
Human rights sources said a Catholic church had recently been looted and a tabernacle profaned at Ouango, on the Congolese border, in an attack which left nine dead, while the rector of Bangui’s Immaculate Conception cathedral, Mgr Francis Saint Clair Siki, had been abducted with the archdiocese’s chancellor, Mgr Dieu-Beni Banga.
While some Muslims had tried to stop the violence, the sources added, others had turned a blind eye and even sold objects looted from churches in their shops.
Mgr Doumalo, the bishops’ conference secretary-general, says Church leaders are planning a conciliatory pastoral letter and hoping to meet Michel Djotodia, the de facto president, to discuss protection for local Christians.
In the meantime, they’re counting on the international community to do something to restore peace and security, and ensure humanitarian aid becomes available as conditions worsen.
“Security measures aren’t proving effective since the transitional authorities aren’t controlling the different rebel elements,” Mgr Doumalo said. “Although our Church has nothing to do with the state, it’s seen as a public institution, so Christians face continual danger and uncertainty. This is why we’re asking the world not to forget us.”
Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance journalist
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 19/7/13