Representatives from Central African Republic (CAR) elected an interim-president Monday, fostering hope for an end to the violence that has plagued the country for months. Beating out seven other candidates, Catherine Samba-Panza, 58, is charged with repairing the nation's disorder and violence. Over the next year, her job is to restore peace between the nation’s religious communities and lead the country to national elections.
Supporters say Samba-Panza’s election is a step in the right direction, some focusing specifically on her gender as a sign of progress. But real progress won’t be possible unless Samba-Panza can successfully address the presence of radical Islam and decreasing religious freedom.
The African nation has been facing weeks of intense violence that led to complete social breakdown. The real trouble started last March when rebel leader Michel Djotodia led an army of Muslim rebels against then-President Francois Bozize. Djotodia succeeded in deposing Bozize but then lost control of his own army. His fighters, most of them extreme Muslims from the north, lit the country ablaze with violence. Targeting Christians, they pillaged homes, burnt churches, and killed civilians. Those opposing Djotodia fought back, some setting mosques aflame and stoning people suspected of supporting his rule.
Last month as the violence escalated, the government completely shut down.Civil leaders stopped showing up for work, schools closed, and more than 1 million civilians fled for safety in neighboring nations. Many are seeking refuge in dismal refugee camps. Tragically, some don’t even make it that far. According to one report, three days ago attackers armed with machetes and clubs ambushed a convoy of Muslims attempting to flee, killing 22 people, three of them children.
Representatives from the Council of the European Union released a statement today expressing deep concern over the nation’s alarming condition. Afraid that the violence will spill over to neighboring nations, they urged the African Union to intervene. The statement also called on “all stakeholders to … seek to resolve the root causes of the persistent instability in the CAR.”
Groups like the EU continue to label the situation a violent clash between Muslims and Christians, fueled by hatred. But according to a report by World Watch International, that is a mischaracterization.
In the beginning, Christians bore the brunt of the violence and persecution, spearheaded by the now-disbanded rebel group, Séléka. An opposing force, the Anti-Balaka (“anti-machete”) dominated much of the retaliation. In mainstream reports, the Anti-Balaka have been characterized as the “Christian” group, but a coalition of bishops from CAR disputed that description in a statement to Open Doors International, pointing out that the Anti-Balaka is mostly a politically motivated opposition group, not a religious one.
“The Anti-Balaka are the expression of the part of the population fed up with the many abuses committed by Séléka rebels,” the bishops said. “However, we reiterate that all Anti-Balaka are not Christians and all Christians are not Anti-Balaka. It is the same for ex-Séléka [members] and Muslims.”
Progress going forward will depend on Samba-Panza’s ability to differentiate between the different groups involved and inspire reconciliation. Tiffany Lynch, a senior policy analyst with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted the religious and political affiliations of the fighting groups have been muddled at best. “Unless people on the ground see progress on justice and reconciliation efforts they may just continue to resort to arms,” Lynch said.