Concert Blast Shows Central African Republic Religious Rift

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  • Explosion this month injured dozens, sparked reprisal killings
  • United Nations says it sees ‘early warning signs of genocide’

Emmanuel Ngallos was playing a keyboard at a concert meant to bring Central African Republic’s Muslims and Christians together when the blast knocked him to the ground -- and highlighted the war-ravaged nation’s religious rift.

“We’re all used to grenades, unfortunately,’’ the 35-year-old said from his narrow bed in a cramped hospital ward in the capital, Bangui. A rectangular bandage showed where shrapnel had torn into his abdomen. “I just didn’t expect this to happen at a reconciliation concert.’’

Ngallos was among two dozen wounded when men on a motorbike threw a grenade during the Nov. 11 party in an apparent bid to sabotage over a year of relative peace in the city. At least five died in reprisal violence between Muslims and Christians. Inter-communal violence has surged since mainly Muslim rebels overthrew President Francois Bozize, a Christian, in March 2013. 

As the army collapsed, rampant rebel abuses prompted non-Muslim men to fight back in loosely organized militias, driving Muslims from towns and villages. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and the conflict rages on in the country that’s suffered decades of weak governance and political instability.

Now most Muslims avoid public prayer and need United Nations escorts to travel outside Bangui, with a leader, Ali Ousmane, warning they’re at risk of extermination. The country’s Catholic Church says religion has no role in the violence.

‘Mosques Alight’

A new government was finally sworn in last year after elections were held under pressure from former colonial ruler France, which sought to withdraw its military intervention force. While the 13,750-strong UN peacekeeping mission has brought stability to Bangui and Bambari, the other main city, armed groups have razed hundreds of villages in the countryside.

A man arrives at the Lakouanga mosque, which is being rebuilt, in Bangui.

Photographer: Pauline Bax/Bloomberg

The government is failing to protect Muslims, said Ousmane, the head of PK5, Bangui’s last Muslim enclave. The CIA World Factbook estimates that Muslims comprise 15 percent of the nation’s 5.6 million people. It’s not clear how many have fled to neighboring countries since the crisis began.

“The state has turned its back on a part of the population for the simple reason that they’re Muslims,” Ousmane said. “What started as a political conflict became ethnic and now it’s turning religious. Mosques are set alight, symbols of Islam are being destroyed, people say ‘we don’t want to hear Allahu Akbar here.’”

Lacking an army and police, the government hasn’t been able to extend its authority beyond Bangui. Some regional officials who were redeployed to the provinces had to return to the capital amid eruptions of fighting.

Analysts say the roots of inter-communal violence lie in Bozize’s recruitment of mainly Muslim mercenaries from Chad to overthrow his predecessor in 2003. During his rule, ethnic Fulani cattle herders, who’re Muslim and often look like Chadians, were increasingly perceived as foreigners who’d come to steal the Central African Republic’s wealth. Today, there are between 15 and 19 armed groups in the country, including a Fulani organization.

‘War Crimes’

While “religion continues to be a factor, especially in some areas of the southeast,” the conflict is one that “revolves around control of territory and resources, a very weak and ineffective central state and impunity for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga

Photographer: Florent Vergnes/AFP via Getty Images

Diamond export restrictions, smuggling and cattle rustling are depriving the state of its main sources of income, according to the government. The Central African Republic was ranked the world’s 10th-biggest diamond producer just before the war.

Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga of the Catholic Church dismisses the idea there’s a religious conflict.

“Religion is just an excuse, a facade,” he said from his office overlooking the Oubangui river, which delineates the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. “With the exception of Bangui, there’s such chaos that anyone can come with a group of fighters and fill in the power vacuum.”

“Muslims and Christians alike are suffering because of the rebel leaders who demand money in return for so-called protection,” Nzapalainga said. “Here, it’s the business of war.’’

Genocide Signs

UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien warned in August that “the early warning signs of genocide’’ were visible. More than 1.1 million people have now fled their homes, the highest-ever number recorded for the country.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said more resources are needed to solve the crisis and last week obtained approval for 900 more UN military personnel. Yet distrust of the organization is high in the Central African Republic, especially toward troops from Muslim-majority countries.

Nine Moroccan peacekeepers died in three separate attacks this year -- six of the casualties were in one town in the southeast where fighters targeted Muslim businessmen, destroyed the mosque and shot the imam. Almost 70 residents died in the attack and about 1,500 Muslims are still sheltering in the town’s church, fearing for their safety.

“I’m worried we’re heading straight toward the abyss,” Muslim leader Ousmane said.

(Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, as part of the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.)

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