Central African Republic Faith Leaders Wage Holy Peace | Sojourners

Central African Republic Faith Leaders Wage Holy Peace

 Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners
Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners
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“Since you are believers, I will speak to you as believers,” the archbishop told us, before explaining how he and his two colleagues — a Muslim imam and an evangelical pastor — have drawn on their faith in order to work for peace and reconciliation in Central African Republic (CAR). “If we want our hearts to be … like the heart of God, we need to learn to love other people, we need to learn to live in peace with them and to take them in. This is the only way we will be true children of God."

When the Seleka, a loose coalition of predominantly Muslim rebels, overturned CAR’s government in 2013, the anti-balaka, a loose coalition of predominantly Christian fighters, began to retaliate. At face value, the conflict seemed to be a religious one, event though Christians and Muslims in CAR have co-existed in relative peace for much of its 50-year history. Yet the twin forces of political instability and lack of economic opportunity have created an environment in which militias and rebel groups can prey upon young, unemployed men who see no hope for a future unless they fight for it.

Despite the chaos and conflict that have raged throughout CAR since March 2013, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Central African Islamic Community, and Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou, President of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic, have united to teach their flocks what it means to be “true children of God.” As news reports have focused on the violence and displacement of some 800,000 Central African Republicans, these three faith leaders have instead focused more deeply on what their faith traditions tell them is true. And that faith has propelled them to seek peace and reconciliation in their war-torn country.

For their work, the three leaders were jointly listed among TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in April and received an award from Search for Common Ground last week.

“When politicians wanted to use the religious fibers to divide the people, whether to maintain power or to conquer it, we stood up as if we were a single man to say ‘non’ to this war and ‘yes’ to peace,” the archbishop said in his acceptance speech.

It is this perspective — calling out in one voice for peace in CAR — that runs so contrary to the narrative of Christian vs. Muslim. This perspective comes from the way each sees the role to which their faith calls them.

“I think that it is very important that we never forget what our vocation is … our role that we are called to play. Because we’re all pastors whether you call us a bishop, a priest or an imam … we all have a flock that we have to feed and protect and lead,” Rev. Guérékoyame- Gbangou said.

The three faith leaders also demonstrate what can happen when people of different faiths embrace their commonalities while still acknowledging their different traditions.

Imam Layama, in discussing the trio’s work, pointed out, “You know, we all worship a god who is a God of peace. … So in a place where peace is under attack, then religious leaders have a duty to do what they can to help maintain peace and to promote living together in harmony.”

It is challenging to hear these men tell their story, in particular because it runs so counter to the narrative we hold to in the West: that religion is superstition at best or a dangerous weapon at worst. Perhaps that is because we live in a culture of relative safety and peace, in which being inconvenienced often feels like suffering. That kind of spiritual climate can often enable us to feel like we’re “more than conquerors.” There’s no need to cling to our faith when there are so many other seemingly great things on which to hold. And there is no imperative to put down deeper roots into our faith when we can “root and establish” ourselves in so many supposedly green pastures. When life is stable and there is (relative) opportunity, what purpose does religion serve?

None of these leaders has any guarantee of safety. Rev. Guérékoyame- Gbangou told us that they no longer have armed protection. At one point, Archbishop Nzapalainga sheltered Imam Layama and his family when they lost their house. When I asked if the leaders were safe, he responded by laughing and saying, “we feel that we are under God’s protection … when we were living with the bishop, we were under God’s protection and also we were under the protection of your prayers.”

My final question to the three leaders was to inquire how this conflict has tested their faith. It was at this point that Archbishop Nzapalainga turned to my colleague and me, to speak to us once again as fellow Christians:

“As you know, Jesus Christ … came to this earth to save humanity and that his life was not his own but he owed his life and his protection to his Father and because he knew … that he was under his Father, he was not afraid to do the mission that God had given him. And so when you have that sort of freedom, that sort of joy of being in communion with God, then you can work without this fear. And we as leaders, if we are following Christ and if we see that Christ gave up his own life to save his sheep, then I should not be afraid; I should give up my own life as well, and if I die, then my life will be like the life of Christ.”

It is easy to look at countries in conflict like CAR and think about what we can do to help — and there is much to do. Central African Republic is in need of aid, security, economic development, and most certainly our prayers. But there is much that we can learn from these men and the way that religion is playing a role in healing their country. May God bless and protect the people of Central African Republic.

Juliet Vedral is Press Secretary for Sojourners.