By Michael Hill and Helen Blakesley
The image that the world has of the Central African Republic (CAR) is a country steeped in violence along a fault line that runs between Christians and Muslims.
But that is not the image that many in CAR have of their country.
“I want the world to know that CAR is a country of peace,” said Innocent Ningando.
He was participating in workshops run by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), teaching how to spread the message of peace and reconciliation in a country that has been torn apart by violence.
The fighting, that began a year ago when a coup ousted CAR’s president, has forced 20 percent of CAR’s 4.5 million people to flee their homes. Continuing unrest, fueled by fighters from neighboring countries, has often been between Christians and Muslims, groups that have lived together peacefully for generations.
These workshops are aimed at restoring that peace. Both Christians and Muslims participated.
“The workshops create space for people to individually and collectively reflect on their situation and discover opportunities to start addressing issues suffocating their harmonious relationships,” explained John Katunga, a CRS expert on Peacebuilding and Justice.
Participants take what they have learned and return to their homes – often in camps for those displaced by the violence – preaching peace through dialogue, music, role-playing and story-telling.
“The young people were amazed by the training. They just wished it could go on for longer. They were so grateful,” said CRS staffer Emilien Nerguidima. “Many of them risk their lives when they go into the camps for displaced people to spread the message.”
The simplicity of calling this a Christian-Muslim schism is belied by the fact that many who have been forced to flee their homes – both Christians and Muslims — have sought and found safety at Catholic Churches. CRS has helped thousands of the displaced with food, shelter and emergency supplies.
Marie-Louise Yakemba, a 57-year-old who is part of a multi-faith women’s group, took the message of peace to one such impromptu camp.
“We went to spread the message at the displacement camp around St. Savior church and it almost cost us our lives because our Muslim colleague was with us,” she said.
Eventually she found an eager audience.
“People react really well to messages that are conveyed through themes – like forgiveness, tolerance, love, secularism,” she said.
Bomassa Mohamed , a 22-year-old Muslim, whose family’s shop was attacked and looted, agrees.
“I’ve been to spread the message, most often during the 1 o’clock prayer,” he said. “There are some tense reactions. Some people want peace and to have a dialogue with Christians, but they’re scared of being attacked. Others want revenge. By using the teaching of the Koran we more or less manage to calm them.”
The participants of this workshop in Bangui, the country’s capital, said they were eager to use what he had learned in the CRS training.
“The training was fantastic,” Mohamed said. “I liked it all from beginning to end.”
Ningando, who has been forced from his home, agreed. “The workshop was a real success, I learned a lot,” he said. “The things we were taught and how we worked in groups was great.”
“As I trained them, I felt the joy of serving them, helping them to face the risks that they’re running,” Nerguidima said. “But above all, I felt their intense desire to learn.”
And their intense desire to restore peace to their country.
“My biggest hope for CAR is for the things we learned in the workshop to be put into practice,” said Hadja Mamba, 54, whose family of five brothers and four sisters has been scattered by the violence. “That we see the reconstruction and rehabilitation of our country’s infrastructure, and that we once again find our place amongst the nations.”
“My dream for the future is good relations between Muslims and Christians,” Mohamed said.
“My dream is to be a leader of peace, who is always working towards uniting people,” said Ningando.
Makemba said that CAR needs more young people like Ningando and Mohamed.
“My dream is that the young people of CAR stand on their own two feet and take responsibility, so they don’t give in to politicians’ politics,” she said. “That everything we’re going through may become just a memory, and that peace returns, and the country’s economy can be prosperous once more.”
Michael Hill is a senior writer for CRS’ communications unit. He is based in Baltimore, MD.
Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.
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