Adapted by AB Griffin, ACN Canada
Given the dramatic situation known to Central-Africa for more than a year now, and by way of solidarity with its populace, beginning today we will be offering you a series of articles which will enable you to accompany the inhabitants of this country, currently at the heart of an unspeakable conflict: a war which recalls the extreme violence of a certain Rwandan genocide, one which we underscore this year with the sad 20th anniversary of the tragedy. How can this tragedy be forgotten? And nonetheless…
If the lines that you are reading are often stained with suffering, you will also see that they contain love stories which allow for transcendence. You will encounter men and women capable of acts of such beauty and of such solicitude, that you will recognize in them, propagators of hope which help us believe that life – is more powerful than death.
The Central African Republic is a landlocked nation in the heart of Africa. With an area of 622,984 km² (240,534 square miles) it is roughly the size of France and Belgium put together, though with a population of just 5 million or so, it is thinly populated. The capital, Bangui, in the south of the country, has an estimated population of 700,000. The official languages are French and Sango. Although rich in natural resources, such as gold, diamonds and also some uranium, it is nevertheless near the bottom of the Human Development Index (180th place out of 186).
Roughly 66% of the population profess Christianity, while some 15% are Muslims. The rest of the population belong to traditional African religions, and there is a widespread belief in witchcraft. Until very recently relations between Christians and Muslims were entirely harmonious.
The first Catholic missionaries were French Spiritan Fathers, who travelled by boat from Brazzaville up the Congo River and then via the Oubangui River, visiting the riverside villages. The first Holy Mass was celebrated on 17 April 1894 at the spot where the present capital Bangui now stands. The oldest church in the country is the church of Saint Paul of the Rapids in Bangui. The first native African priest in the country was ordained in 1938.
Today, the Catholic Church in Central African Republic (CAR) has nine dioceses of which one, Bangui, is an archdiocese. According to data from the year 2007, the Catholic Church had 220 schools and kindergartens in the country, plus 168 other institutions, such as orphanages and hospitals or clinics. The State fulfils its responsibilities in regard to education, healthcare and the like only very minimally, and in many places not at all.
In 1889, the first French military outpost was established in what is now the capital Bangui. Next in 1910, the country became an independent colony within French Equatorial Africa. Then in 1911 the region was annexed to the new German colony of German Cameroon, under the name of New Cameroon. However, in 1919 it reverted under the Versailles Treaty to French Equatorial Africa.
On 13 August 1960, the country finally became independent under the name of the Central African Republic (République centrafricaine, or Centrafrique). Since then the history of the country has been marked by an endless series of coups, one of the most notorious being the reign of terror of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who seized power in a military putsch in 1966 and had himself proclaimed emperor on December 4, 1976. Three years later, he himself was overthrown – in yet another putsch. More was to follow. The most recent of these was on March 24, 2013, when Michel Djotodia seized power with the help of the “Séléka” rebel coalition. The previous president, François Bozizé, who had also come to power through a coup, fled abroad.
Since December 10, 2012, a group of armed rebels, calling themselves Séléka – which means “Alliance” in Sango – had taken up arms in order to conquer the country. Within a few days they had succeeded in attacking the major towns, the capitals of the prefectures, and even in capturing Bambari, the headquarters of a military exclusion zone. A few days after Christmas they captured Sibut, about 100 miles from Bangui. In March 2013 they reached the capital Bangui and seized control of the government on March 24 – Michel Djotodia, declared himself President.
Schools and public institutions were closed for months following the coup, which was then followed by an appalling wave of uncontrolled violence and widespread looting. Mission stations and Church premises were among the principal targets. One reason of course was the fact that there was “something to be had” there. Today there are dioceses where the Catholic Church has not a single vehicle left to pursue her mission with. On the other hand, there were also ideological motives. The rebels of the Séléka coalition – who are overwhelmingly Muslim and include many fighters from Chad and Sudan (who speak only Arabic ) – have brought an Islamist element into the country that never existed before. Their self-appointed president is a Muslim, who has filled the government posts mainly with Muslims and who, at the beginning of his rule, announced his intention to establish an “Islamic Republic”.
Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, also the chairman of the Central African bishops’ conference, has notably warned that religious conflict is being stirred up by people of “ill will”. He has repeatedly warned against revenge attacks, which risk leading to an escalation of violence between the different faith communities within the country. During the summer of 2013 in particular, there were a number of peace meetings between the representatives of the various different faith communities. For example, on the 10th and 11th of June in Bangui there was an interreligious meeting to which Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga invited representatives of the various other religions. One priest was appointed in each diocese to lead the negotiations with the Séléka rebels.
June 23: the bishops of Central Africa issued a joint document in which they clearly acknowledged the catastrophic situation in the country. It was entitled: “Du jamais vu en Centrafrique” (Never seen before in Central Africa).
June 26: Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga received the pallium from Pope Francis, together with 33 other archbishops from around the world.
• More and more fighting between the Séléka and member from a group called: “Anti-Balaka”;
• The Signing of the “Republican Pact” has no practical impact on the country’s situation;
• The European Union (EU) sets up an airlift to bring aid goods into the country ;
• Despite a message from Pope Francis, the violence and troubles in Bangui and elsewhere continue to increase;
• Over one million people flee, more than 100,000 of them to the capital, Bangui.