Central African Republic can recover from the carnage of violent conflict through a return to Christ, who empowers Christians to forgive their enemies, the archbishop of the nation’s capital says.
“How can a society touched by evil move forward? How can the people find reason to hope — and discover light amidst the darkness,” Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui asked in a March 17 reflection, which was provided to Aid to the Church in Need.
“We need men and women who are able to proclaim a message of reconciliation — to help quiet the voices of division, hatred, and vengeance. Those voices run counter to the Church’s fundamental message — we have to return to Christ Himself.”
Violence broke out in Central African Republic in December 2012. Seleka rebels, loosely organized groups that drew primarily Muslim fighters from other countries, ousted the president and installed their own leader in a March 2013 coup.
The Seleka were officially disbanded, but its members continued to commit crimes such as pillaging, looting, rape and murder.
In September 2013, after 10 months of terrorism at the hands of the Seleka, “anti-balaka” self-defense groups began to form. The anti-balaka picked up momentum in November, and the conflict in the nation took on a sectarian character, as some anti-balaka, many of whom are Christian, began attacking Muslims out of revenge for the Seleka’s acts.
After international pressure and resistance from the anti-balaka, Michel Djotodia stepped down as president in January 2014. Soon after, a national council elected an interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian who has appealed for an end to bloodshed from both sides.
Thousands have been killed in the violence. The U.N. has estimated at least 650,000 people have been displaced within the country, while nearly 300,000 have fled to neighboring countries. Some 1.3 million are in need of food aid, in a country that was one of the world’s poorest even prior to the outbreak of violence.
Reflecting on the violence, Archbishop Nzapalainga wrote about his visit to Bouan, a town about 10 miles from Bouar, in the country’s west. Parts of a neighborhood had been burned down and many were killed.
“People had been set on fire as well, burned to death in their very homes. There were bones lying all around and people’s heads. I had never seen such a scene — not in our country; maybe in footage from Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, but not here.”
“That day we were touched by evil. It was manifested in this desire to kill, to destroy, to cut people into pieces. This barbarism was the work of the devil.”
He said that “for many years, the people of the Central African Republic have lived in harmony; we have known brotherhood – this communion among communities.”
“The upheaval and violence has brought division, death, suffering, the destruction of the other,” he lamented. “Now the time has come to open our hearts more widely still, so that God can give us a new dynamism — fill up our hearts so that we will be able to offer our hand to others, in love, and to begin life together anew.”
The archbishop stressed the need for Christians to return to Jesus Christ and his words offering forgiveness: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
“Now the time has come to open our hearts more widely still, so that God can give us a new dynamism — fill up our hearts so that we will be able to offer our hand to others, in love, and to begin life together anew.”
“In this moment, in the depth of our troubles, we, as Christians, cannot remain closed in upon ourselves.”
Some Christians in the nation have taken to heart the message of Archbishop Nzapalainga, reaching out to and protecting their Muslim neighbors in parishes, convents, and monasteries.
In the town of Boali, Fr. Xavier Fagba gave shelter in his parish to some 700 Muslims beginning in January.
Yet the anti-balaka threatened Fr. Fagba, and attacked the parish. The Muslim inhabitants of St. Peter’s parish were evacuated to Cameroon March 1, protected by African peacekeepers.
Much the same thing has happened in Carnot, where the local priests have given shelter to nearly 800 Muslims.
“Walking through town I’ve had guns pointed in my face four times,” Fr. Justin Nary told The Associated Press in February. “They (the anti-balaka) call my phone and say they’ll kill me once the peacekeepers are gone.”
The Muslim inhabitants of Carnot’s parish who can prove ties to Cameroon have been evacuated there, while the remainder have stayed behind, protected by the priests and foreign peacekeepers.
Archbishop Nzapalainga reflected that the power to forgive one’s enemy is “not possible in strictly human terms,” but is “an act of faith.”
“It is only with the power of great humility that we can offer this alternative,” he said. Only God can purify Christians and help them “extend ourselves to others, yes, in the face of all this suffering.”
“It will be hard, it will be very difficult, especially those first steps. But we have to make our way toward others again.”
“The Church needs men and women who can testify that peace is possible now; we need people who are committed firmly to peace-making — who by their sheer witness bring about peace.”
When peace returns, the Church can act as a “witness of love” and “help men and women rediscover Christ and help those of other faiths recognize or discover the integrity of our faith.”
The archbishop said his role is to encourage all Catholics to proclaim a move towards Christ.
“Elsewhere, division and revenge rule the day. But Christ offers us an alternative: He proposes life — not death. This Lent, we can begin to rebuild the Central African Republic!”