The Archbishop of Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, recently visited the international headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Germany. In this interview Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga recalls the decisive action taken by religious leaders to prevent the conflict in the country from turning into a religious war.
Tell us a bit about what your country is currently experiencing. Why is there no peace?
In 2020 President Faustin-Archange Touadéra was re-elected, in difficult circumstances. The previous president had troops at his disposal and was threatening to return to power via a military coup. Faustin-Archange Touadéra forged alliances with Rwanda and with Russia to expel the rebels from the country. The Wagner group, in particular, was involved in fighting the rebels, and expelled them from the major cities.
However, the rebels continue to be present in the smaller settlements, so the people cannot travel freely, because of insecurity. They fear the roadblocks and explosive devices. An Italian missionary, Fr Norberto Pozzi, was recently struck by a mine that was set off by his car, and he was badly wounded, even though he obviously had nothing to do with the current political conflict. They had to amputate his foot.
Why has it proved so difficult to end the violence in your country?
Our country is bigger than France and it is difficult for a weak administration to control. There is not really a frontline. The militias hostile to the Government are spread out through the country, and difficult to pin down. The political motives of these rebels are unclear, but I fear that it is more a case of people who joined militias and cannot put down their weapons now because they have no other means of earning a living. The ones who belong to more structured groups take possession of the lands they plunder. Naturally, they are more active in places where there are more riches, such as valuable wood and minerals. The state is trying to impose the rule of law, and meanwhile all our citizens are suffering.
In the early days of the war in the CAR we would hear about the Séléka militia, which was mostly Muslim, attacking Christians. Is there a religious dimension to the conflict?
We joined with other religious leaders in the country, with pastors and imams, and proclaimed loud and clear that this is not a religious conflict. We have always stood united against the risk of this turning into a confessional war, and this position has borne fruit. As religious leaders we are like parents in a family, we must lead by example. Our citizens can see that we continued to be on good terms with each other and that we always continued to say that the divisions in our country were being imposed from outside. Our efforts at peacebuilding were made easier by the fact that in Central African society many families are mixed, and everybody has a cousin, an uncle or somebody close who belongs to another religion, but is still part of the same family tree. We witnessed beautiful moments of brotherhood in Bangui, in which young Muslims helped to rebuild churches and young Christians helped to rebuild mosques. At the end of the day, even though this crisis has been terrible, it has had the positive effect of promoting unity among us.
But at a time when we have seen so many countries on the margins of the Sahel region, such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Niger, becoming war zones between Christians and Muslim… Do you fear a contagion effect?
Our experience shows that religious conflicts can be avoided. There are opposite examples, such as in Senegal, where Muslims are the majority and there is no interreligious conflict, and where they have even elected Christian presidents. I think that religious leaders have a very important role to play to avoid religious division.
Even though the country is experiencing a terrible crisis, the Church shows an extraordinary vitality, which is also manifested in the number of vocations to the priesthood. Do you see a paradox here?
I think that this period of crisis benefits Church growth. For our poorer compatriots, who live in pain, insecurity and poverty, God truly is the Rock on which they can lean. During the unrest, when so many people were displaced, many found refuge in our churches, and some children were even born there.
The Catholic Church in the Central African Republic is now trying to reach out to the peripheries, such as the Diocese of Bossangoa, in the Northeast, which has been plagued by armed groups. We have a school there and we are preparing young priests, both in human and spiritual terms, to go to this danger zone. We also invite lay Catholic couples to go to these places where nobody else wants to go.
Isn’t this too much of a risk?
The people who live in these difficult areas need the sacraments and the fraternal witness of the universal Church. This is very important. When I was made a Cardinal, I was told, and rightly so, that I was meant to represent the whole country, and not just Bangui. This is why I go to places where high-ranking Government representatives cannot go. Of course, this implies risks, even if only due to the state of our roads, some of which have not been repaired since independence. Recently my car flipped over on one of them… But our life is a small thing when compared to the expectations of the people who are calling out for spiritual support.
Pope Francis visited the country in 2015. Did this have any lasting effects?
Yes, it did, and it strengthened interreligious cohesion. It was a high-risk visit, but the Pope was welcomed by all the people. During the Mass he celebrated in the stadium there were Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. One of the latter even told me that the Pope had come to set them free. To free the Muslims! He belonged to a community that was locked into a neighbourhood called “Kilometre 5”, and which lived in fear of Christian reprisals.
In 2015 we were celebrating the Year of Mercy, and the Pope opened a Holy Door here, which was a gesture that will forever remain in the country’s history. These Holy Doors are generally limited to Rome. This is a door of life and forgiveness, which represents the visit of the Successor of Peter to our country.