The Globe Post: Central Africans Should Not be Denied Their Right to Vote Based on Their Faith

Aug 14, 2020

This op-ed originally appeared in The Globe Post, on August 14, 2020.

By USCIRF Vice Chairs Anurima Bhargava and Tony Perkins

Over half-a-million Central Africans remain displaced outside of their country, fearing religious or ethnic violence should they return. These refugees­—many of them religious minorities—now find themselves wondering if they will be allowed to participate in rebuilding their war-ravaged country as the nation’s December elections approach.

The Central African Republic (CAR)—a landlocked country in the middle of the African continent where an estimated 89% of the population is Christian and a minority of 9% is Muslim—devolved into violent conflict in 2013. The conflict displaced over one-in-five Central Africans and triggered early warning signs of a genocide targeting civilians based on their religious identity. Today, many Central African refugees are religious minorities unable to return home for fear of violent retribution.

Despite such devastation, the Central African people have come together across religious lines to move forward.  Religious leaders from both Christian and Muslim communities are taking on roles as mediators, calling for tolerance and nonviolence. Pastors and bishops have housed displaced Muslims in their churches and refused entrance to armed actors who threatened to kill them. The government held peaceful, democratic elections in 2016, and the signing of a peace treaty with 14 armed groups in 2019. This treaty—signed by the current President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra —commits to creating an inclusive Central African Republic, in which all citizens of different religious and ethnic identities can live in harmony.

This progress will not endure, however, unless the Touadéra government ensures the participation of religious minorities in the upcoming elections. Unlike the 2015-2016 electoral process, efforts to ensure that CAR refugees can vote in the upcoming elections are lackluster and severely underfunded, facing more than a $10 million shortfall. Refugees living on the borders of neighboring states are expected to travel hundreds of miles in order to register to vote before the registration window closes in November. This means that CAR’s Muslim population will likely be underrepresented in the electoral process.

CAR refugees are subject to constant violence and fear: having been forced to flee their homes in the dead of night, they now face starvation as food rations in refugees camps have been cut in half and humanitarian funds dry up. Women fear attacks and sexual violence when they leave the camps to collect resources for their families. Fear of not being allowed to vote can be added to the list.

Religious minorities living inside the country face similar challenges. The voter registration process in CAR often requires proof of citizenship – either a passport or an ID card.  Religious minorities reportedly face additional difficulties in obtaining these documents, and are required to fill out extra forms or charged additional fees. Such barriers and hurdles suggest that CAR seeks to exclude religious minorities from the democratic process.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, recommended in its 2020 Annual Report that the State Department place CAR on its Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom, and that the U.S. government assist the CAR government in ensuring Muslims are able to participate in upcoming 2020 elections. The Touadéra government must provide support to register displaced persons and remove barriers for participation in elections based on their faith.

Central Africans should not be denied suffrage based on their faith. Upholding the rights of religious minorities to partake in representative governance is the cornerstone of a successful and peaceful democracy. The CAR government must work with the United States and international community to raise funds and ensure that Central African refugees and religious minorities are not denied their right to vote and contribute to rebuilding their country.