Pope Francis visited one of the epicenters of Muslim-Christian violence in Africa this weekend, preaching peace. The AP reports:
Under heavy security, Francis crossed into the PK5 neighborhood where Bangui’s Muslims have been unable to leave for months because armed Christian militia fighters have surrounded its perimeter. The pope traveled in his open-air vehicle through the neighborhood despite the security risks. Armed U.N. peacekeepers stood guard in the minarets of the mosque.[..]
Francis had insisted on coming to the PK5 neighborhood to appeal for peace in a country where two years of Christian-Muslim violence has divided the capital and forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes.[..]
“Christians and Muslims and members of traditional religions have lived peacefully for many years,” he said. “Together, we say no to hatred, to vengeance and violence, especially that committed in the name of a religion or God.”
The Pope is right: In areas like the CAR, Christians and Muslims and animists (followers of traditional pagan religions) had indeed lived relatively peacefully for some time. What wars there were were largely about non-sectarian issues. But (as Francis also noted) that’s now changing.
For some time now, we’ve discussed Africa’s “God Wars”—the intermittent conflicts raging along the middle of the continent, where Muslim north and Christian south meet (and a once-substantial animist buffer has been worn away by successful proselytizing, especially by Christians). Tribal politics and religious radicalism combine to make this one of the bloodiest regions on earth. Often, the increased wealth and interconnectedness that modernity brings (in fits and starts) just raises the stakes.
The violence in the CFR is one of the bloodiest episodes in Africa’s recent religious conflicts. In a fascinating long-form essay in Foreign Policy this October, Ty McCormick explained the recent history there:
The east bank of the Ouaka is controlled by remnants of the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that pillaged and raped its way across CAR before seizing power over the country for a brief period in 2013. The west bank belongs to the anti-Balaka, the knife- and machete-wielding Christian self-defense militias that sprang up to counter the Seleka but managed to make the Muslim rebel coalition’s abuses look relatively mild by comparison. “Muslims are too afraid to travel to the [west] bank,” the mayor of Bambari, Abel Matchipata, told me recently. “Some Christians are traveling to the [east] bank, but they are doing so with a lot of fear.”
Bambari’s stark divisions mirror those in the rest of CAR, a Texas-sized swath of rainforest and savannah that is sandwiched between Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other troubled neighbors. Even before the latest crisis, CAR was “worse than a failed state,” according to the International Crisis Group. Now, after two-and-a-half years of turmoil stemming from the Seleka coup, the country is de facto partitioned: anti-Balaka in the southwest and former Seleka fighters in the northeast, where they fled after the coalition was disbanded and its leader stepped down under intense international pressure in January 2014. (They are now known as ex-Seleka, an umbrella term that refers to a smattering of armed groups lacking an organized central command.) Outside of CAR’s capital city, Bangui, virtually nothing is under government control. At least 6,000 people have been killed and 832,000 displaced — 368,000 inside the country and 464,000 abroad. About half of the country’s 4.7 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
Now, a peacekeeping mission that was of dubious value to begin with (Francis’ trip was really brave, under those circumstances) is set to end, the government’s writ doesn’t run far beyond the capitol, and, as one of McCormick’s subjects says, “one day we will start a big war.”
That’s the real fear: a big war. In an age of international religious violence, policymakers need to make sure the bush fights of the God Wars, bloody as they are individually, don’t erupt into a regional sectarian conflict in one of the most densely populated areas on earth. It will take more than aid money to forestall this this—it will take attention, political capital, and benign religious influence. For that reason, good for the Pontiff, not only for bringing a message of peace to the CFR, but also for bringing the attention that his presence carries. Other Western leaders should take note.