Addressing religious freedom violations is always hard, but when killers roam free and government officials fail to even acknowledge the rights of religious minorities it becomes impossible. That is what we face in the Central African Republic (CAR). We traveled to CAR in May and found government officials apathetic at best to the needs of the country’s marginalized Muslims.
In late August, the United Nations aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, stated "The early warning signs of genocide are there. We must act now." With the U.S. ambassador to CAR having just left, the U.S. must also act to ensure that it remains engaged at this most critical time.
CAR has a long, sad history. A Christian majority country, fighting between Muslim and Christian militias has regularly occurred since the 2013 coup by the largely Muslim Séléka coalition. In response, the deposed president brought together the predominantly Christian “anti-balaka” to avenge the Séléka attacks. CAR remains fragile, susceptible to outbreaks of sectarian violence, and fractured along religious lines.
In 2015, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, determined that ethnic cleansing of Muslims had occurred and recommended that the U.S. government designate CAR as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). CPCs represent the worst violators of religious freedom in the world. We made that same recommendation in 2016 and 2017.
The State Department, however, has yet to declare CAR a CPC.
The UN Commission of Inquiry on the CAR in 2014 found that 99 percent of the capital’s Muslims had left Bangui, 80 percent of the entire country’s Muslim population had fled to Cameroon or Chad, and 417 of CAR’s 436 mosques were destroyed. Since 2014, few Muslims have returned.
There are fears of similar dynamics now in CAR’s center and east. Since May, targeted killings based on religious identity have dramatically increased and displaced more than 100,000. Just prior to our May visit, in Bangassou, anti-balaka militias sought to eliminate Muslims from the town, even trapping Muslims who sought refuge in a mosque or hospital. They now shelter in the town’s Catholic cathedral — a rare interfaith victory — and cannot leave for fear of being killed.
While ongoing violence in CAR is conducted by 14 armed groups and the country is reliant on UN peacekeepers, the government could take steps to address impunity, improve religious freedom and interfaith conditions, and assist victims of sectarian violence.
Our charge from Congress is to examine not only what a government does in terms of religious freedom violations, but also what it tolerates. It is in the latter category that the Central African Republic falls short.
Our meetings with government officials, NGOs, and CAR citizens left us disheartened and frustrated by an apparent lack of government interest to reverse the long-term effects of the ethnic cleansing of Muslims, promote reconciliation, and end impunity for violence against Muslims. Support is even fading for the Special Criminal Court to hold accountable gross human rights abusers since 2003, including those behind the violence since 2013.
In western CAR, where Muslims have been driven out, very few have been allowed to return by their former Christian neighbors. Those who have returned are prohibited from practicing their faith.
In Bangui and Boda, Muslims said there remain areas where they cannot travel, fearing for their lives. Almost no destroyed mosques have been repaired or replaced. What is truly sad is that these two cities are “positive” examples of reconciliation in CAR.
When we raised these concerns about Muslim’s rights, government officials told us that reports of restrictions on Muslims’ freedom of religion or movement were simply not true. We were even told that Muslim concerns about being targeted because of their clothing was not an issue because they could already be identified by their facial features. And most absurdly, we were informed that religion is not part of the conflict; yet militias continue to kill based on religious identity, leading to retaliatory attacks and waves of violence.
If the CAR government does not acknowledge the problem, how can it protect the rights of Muslims, create conditions for a future multi-faith country, or promote social cohesion amongst all CAR citizens?
As an independent U.S. government commission that provides policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and the Congress, USCIRF has the mandate to focus specifically on religious freedom abroad. On that basis alone, we urge more U.S. attention on CAR.
The U.S. government is highly influential in CAR. As disappointing as we found the current situation on the ground, we are convinced that without continued, strong U.S. engagement we will very likely see a backsliding on what little progress has been made. And in this case, backsliding likely means an escalation of violence that could easily morph into the sectarian murder-spree that occurred in 2014.
In short, the United States must help the Central African Republic address accountability for violence and ending impunity. The people of CAR expect its government to function, and if it cannot or will not take responsibility for the religious, ethnic, and sectarian violence it faces, we will see more ethnic cleansing. As the U.N. aid chief said, “We must act now.”
Sandra Jolley and Jackie Wolcott are members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Ms. Jolley is the Commission’s Vice Chair.