Central African Republic
Total population 6 million. It is estimated that 89 per cent are Christian, 9 per cent (Sunni) Muslim.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
Many Christians and Muslims follow a number of traditional cultural practices, which some commentators have seen as syncretic. One of the groups most vulnerable in relation to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) violations are those who have exercised the right to change their belief. This is due to the intense and ongoing violence that exists along ethno-religious lines.
Conflict since 2013 has left most of the country occupied by armed militia groups responsible for a range of human rights abuses. The Séléka (a majority Muslim coalition, but which also included fighters from Christianity and other religious groups) overthrew Christian President Francois Bozize, replacing him with Michael Djotodia, the country’s first Muslim leader. He formally disbanded Séléka after he took power, but members of Séléka have continued to operate in the country, taking control of territory and establishing themselves as the de facto authority in these areas. There militia groups are either referred to as Séléka or else as ex- Séléka. In opposition, and in response to intense bouts of violence, both during and after the coup, anti-Balaka groups began to form, as armed actors coalesced. Predominantly, anti-Balaka groups have consisted of pre-existing village defence groups, but they have also attracted former soldiers who remain loyal to deposed President Bozize, former Séléka fighters, disaffected youths seeking revenge for Séléka violations, and criminals.
As disinformation and fake news drive hate speech, Christians and Muslims have come to view one another with prejudice and animosity. Grievances span from disputes over political power and economic opportunity to social discrimination and lack of land rights. Throughout these intercommunal conflicts, hate speech has been an instrumental tool in fostering resentment and hostility. Easily accessible through news sources, radio, and social media, it is a particularly dynamic mechanism that has continued to destabilize the population and prevent reconciliation.
While not essentially a religious struggle, it can assume a sectarian dimension. In areas held by Séléka fighters in the north of CAR, religious leaders who have publicly denounced the violence have been threatened and church buildings have been burned and ransacked. The conflict has resulted in the displacement of thousands of Christians who have been forced to live in camps and lose their homes and livelihood. In November 2018 there was significant violence. In the anti-Balaka-held regions in the south-west of the country it is Muslims who face more restrictions. As a result, very few Muslims remain in the area.
In response to the escalating violence a new peace deal was agreed between the Touadéra government and the 14 armed group leaders in February 2019 – the eighth agreement in two years. Violence resurfaced in May and June of 2019 – with the UN indicating that between 50 and 70 violations of the peace accord were reported every week. While the Khartoum Agreement represented a step towards formal reconciliation, justice and accountability, its implementation has stalled and many communities continue to experience the same security risks fuelled by religious discrimination that have existed for the past eight years.
The peace deal collapsed and violence returned around the general election in December 2020. There are now an estimated 1.2 million displaced persons, with a possible further 200,000 following the election violence. The absence of a formal justice and reconciliation process throughout CAR has allowed the ideological components of the conflict to continue influencing the fighting. Although the violence sparked by the December 2020 election, as well as CAR’s overall instability, is not necessarily religious in nature, the lack of formal justice and reconciliation makes it entirely possible that violence could become increasingly defined along religious and ideological lines.
FCO Human Rights Report 2019
No specific reference to Freedom of Religion or Belief
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
According to the last census in 2003, 80% of the Central African Republic’s (CAR) population is Christian and 15% is Muslim. Animism is also practiced by a significant percentage of the population. The US’s CIA World Factbook gives lower figures for Christians (50%), classifying 35% of the population as “indigenous beliefs”. While widely cited, these figures, which recategorize part of the Christian population as “indigenous beliefs”, have been criticised by some Church sources for failing to understand the presence of certain tribal practices among converts to Christianity.
In terms of FoRB violations, some of the most vulnerable people are those who have exercised the right to change their belief. Because to the religious overtones to the intense and ongoing violence, both Christian and Muslim civilians have been victims of the violence perpetrated by militia groups.
Until recently, CAR’s multi-religious society had not experienced substantial tension, despite intermittent political violence and attempted coups. The government coup in March 2013, however, had a religious dimension.The Séléka (a majority Muslim coalition) overthrew the then Christian President Francois Bozize, replacing him with Michael Djotodia, the country’s first Muslim leader. In response to intense bouts of violence, both during and after the coup, anti-Balaka groups began to form. Although often described as “Christian militias”, anti-Balaka groups were predominantly constituted of pre-existing village defence groups, and also attracted former soldiers who remain loyal to deposed President Bozize, former Séléka fighters, disaffected youths seeking revenge for Séléka violations, and criminals.
Shortly after Michel Djotodia was declared president, he dissolved Séléka, but various members of the militia formed new factions and made bids to seize power at a local level. In areas controlled by former members of Séléka in the north of CAR, such as Kaka Bango, informal and ad hoc taxes are imposed, as well as restrictions on the free movement of people and goods. Christians and animists who are mostly subsistence farmers do not produce a surplus and are less likely to be able to pay the taxes. Where they are prevented from travelling to their farms, food insecurity and vulnerability increases. CSW noted, “The difference between the Muslim community’s ability to respond to Seleka’s demands compared to Christians and animists creates an atmosphere in which religious tensions can build” According to Church sources, minority Christian communities have not been allowed to meet together to carry out their religious practices, with some even forced to flee from their villages.
Many Anti-Balaka militias have also sought power for themselves, like former Séléka mercenaries they have also tried to gain control of the country’s mineral wealth. According to Bishop Nestor Nongo-Aziagba of Bossangoa, president of CAR’s bishops’ conference, 80% of the country is currently under rebel control. In the anti-Balaka-held regions in the south-west of the country, most religious groups, including Christians, are generally free to worship and express their faith in public and in private, but those Muslims who remain in these areas face far more restrictions. Anti-Balaka groups have also targeted Christian religious leaders who advocate for Muslims, attacking those involved in peacebuilding and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians.
The Church is positioned precariously between the two groups, with the anti-Balakas seeing the Church as traitorous for protecting Muslims while the “Séléka see the Church as complicit with the antiBalakas.”
Crucially, in spite of the positive work of Christian and Muslim leaders through the ‘Plateforme des Confessions Religieuses de Centrafrique’, CAR experienced a deterioration in FoRB in late 2018 and early 2019. Significant waves of violence in late 2018 stoked fears of an ‘all-out war’. On 15 November 2018, a group of ex-Séléka fighters calling themselves Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC) attacked, burned, and ransacked a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) located in the grounds of the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Alindao. It has been reported that 112 people – including two priests—were killed in the massacre with 18,000 civilians displaced.
On 4 December, another IDP camp run by the Catholic church in Ippy was attacked by the UPC, resulting in the deaths of two children. According to the UN, by the end of 2018 there were 640,969 IDPs.
Anti-Balaka groups engaged in severe violence throughout 2018. Most notably, CAR officials transferred anti-Balaka militia leader, Alfred Yekatom, over to the International Criminal Court in November 2018 after a UN commission of inquiry found that anti-Balaka groups under his guidance had ‘carried out war crimes and crimes against humanity by targeting Muslims’.
In response to the escalating violence in CAR, a new peace deal was agreed between the government and the 14 armed group leaders in February 2019 – the eighth agreement in two years. The deal included a commitment to religious freedom and human rights, giving rise to a new optimism surrounding the future of FoRB in CAR. However, despite this initial optimism, the peace
deal has faltered and violence resurfaced in May and June of 2019 – with the UN reporting in June that between 50 and 70 violations of the peace accord were taking place every week. For instance, on 21 May, gunmen from the ex-Séléka group ‘Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation’ (3R) attacked and shot an estimated 39 civilians in Ndjondjom, Koundjili and Bohong village, in the north-west of CAR – with some 12,000 people displaced from their homes. The day before this attack, a 77-year-old Spanish nun was found beheaded in the village of Nola. This renewed violence has magnified prior disagreements over representation in the CAR cabinet, and the peace agreement has once more come under significant strain.
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