Archbishop of Bangui Dieudonné Nzapalainga (R) and the Central African Republic’s senior cleric Imam Oumar Kobine Layama.

Archbishop of Bangui Dieudonné Nzapalainga (R) and the Central African Republic’s senior cleric Imam Oumar Kobine Layama.

When the fighting broke out, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga’s church became a refuge. Not only for hundreds of Christian families but also for the most senior Muslim cleric in the Central African Republic, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama.

Both men are making a strong statement for peace and unity — one that they believe is critical for the future of the Central African Republic.“We have to leave this cycle of hate, or the state will fail,” Archbishop Nzapalainga said.

The Central African Republic descended into chaos in March 2013 with the overthrow of the government of President François Bozizé by a militia coalition knows as the Seleka. Spurned by religious hate speech by Bozizé, retaliation by the Seleka quickly took religious undertones.

After the mainly Muslim Seleka took power in March 2013, President Michel Djotodia failed to bring peace. There was rampant lawlessness, rapes, torture and killings by the Seleka. The attacks and lack of security led to the rise of Christian local self-defense forces known as anti-Balaka, many of which retaliated by committing their own atrocities.

In December 2013,  the situation exploded. Withing weeks over 1,000 people were killed and 210,000 were displaced by fighting in the capital of Bangui. And when President Djotodia resigned in early January 2014, conditions further declined. Today almost 1 million people have fled their homes — almost a quarter of the population — and more than two million are in need of humanitarian aid.

It seems an impossible situation, but lights of hope exist. Working for tolerance and reconciliation, Archbishop Nzapalainga and Imam Layama are some of the strongest voices for peace in the Central African Republic.

Traveling across the country together they are promoting religious tolerance. And they’ve taken their concerns and recommendations outside the country as well, visiting leaders in Europe. In France, they met directly with President Francois Hollande and they were met in Brussels by high-level officials.

In a letter written to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, they stressed:

[That the country has known ]“cycles of crises for decades [but] we have never seen a situation as dramatic and alarming as it is today. Throughout the years, our people have lived side by side, in harmony. Today, we witness Christians and Muslims turning against one another; committing crimes of unspeakable violence against their own brothers and sisters”.

Their meetings saw immediate results. The European Union pledged more troops. France is sending additional forces. But much more is needed.

While 1,600 French troops have been deployed and 4,000 African Union troops are in the field supported by $100 million in assistance from the United States, the violence has proved difficult to stop. Preparations for a longer term and more robust UN peacekeeping operation are slow. A transitional government and new president face extreme challenges in restoring order and, more importantly, the faith of the people.

Noting the seriousness of the challenges ahead, Archbishop Nzapalainga said, “Reconstructing the social fabric will take time. Disarming people is one thing, disarming hearts is a much harder task at hand.”

The Archbishop and the Imam are taking extraordinary steps. Coupled with the support needed from the international community, their work to bring people together and calm tensions will show the country how they can live in peace with each other.

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