Religious tensions rise in Central African Republic after coup By PATRICK FORT | Sunday, March 31   2013 at  15:23

Deposed Central Africa president Francois Bozize (right) stands next to Seleka rebel coalition chief Michel Djotodia after talks in Libreville on January 11, 2013. There are fears on religious intolerance in the largely-Christian country after Mr Djotodia ousted Mr Bozize in a coup. PHOTO | AFP 

Rising religious tensions in the Central African Republic could be a ticking time-bomb after a coup that left the chronically unstable nation with a Muslim strongman, despite his promises of secular rule.

"We are sitting on a bomb. An evil sorcerer could blow up the whole house. I don't want us to underestimate the problem," said Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the Catholic archbishop of Bangui.

Michel Djotodia, the self-proclaimed president, became the first Muslim leader of the country after seizing power in a bloody March 24 coup that ousted president Francois Bozize, creating days of chaos and looting.

"The Central African Republic is a secular state," Mr Djotodia said on Friday. "It is true that I am Muslim, but I must serve my country, all Central Africans."

However he said that "some people with bad intentions want to lead the country into inter-religious conflict."

Since Mr Djotodia and his Seleka rebel coalition began an offensive in December, Bozize's regime often accused them of "preaching Wahhabism" — an ultra-conservative Islam often followed by fundamentalists — or of being "Muslim terrorists."

During the crisis Mr Bozize's supporters set up so-called self-defence committees which erected roadblocks around the capital Bangui and often lashed out at Muslims whom they associated with the rebels.

Ransacked

At the same time the rebels leaned on the Muslim community which carried out fundraising for them. Looters also ransacked Christian property after the coup, sparing Muslims and heightening tensions.

One resident of Bangui said that images of Muslims chanting "Allah Akbar" (God is great) when Mr Djotodia arrived at the Bangui mosque for Friday prayers had "shocked" some Christians.

"We are no longer at home. They pillage our goods which are then sold by the Muslims who export them to the north (Chad and Sudan)," he said on condition of anonymity.

A woman from the Benz-Vi suburb added, referring to the Muslims: "They say, 'It's our turn now. We will make you pay'."

The country of nearly five million people is mostly Christian, with about 15 per cent Muslims who are concentrated in the north where the rebellion started.

The different religions have always coexisted peacefully and leaders from both sides have urged people not to confuse the fact that there is a Muslim leader, with the "Islamisation" of the country.

"The new authorities are not there for a religious goal but a political goal. They must present their political agenda to convince the population," said Pastor Nicolas Guere Koyame, leader of the Alliance of Evangelists in Central Africa.

'Not religious'

Imam Oumar Kobline Layama, president of the Islamic Community of Central Africa, said the rebels should not play into the hands of those "who want to turn this change into a religious problem."

"We must not destroy this cohabitation that we have had for more than 50 years," he said.

"I ask Muslims not to say: 'today it's our turn'. There is no 'turn', we are all Central Africans. The leaders of Seleka must keep to the principles of Islam. Islam does not encourage division or theft or looting," he said.

The archbishop Nzapalainga also called for people not to mix up religion and politics.

"The reason for the crisis is not religious but political. But along the way, words and actions toward the Christian community have given the impression this is a religious crisis," he said.

However ,sources in the political, military and diplomatic community say the Islam practiced by Seleka is of less concern than the absence of the state and the security vacuum which, combined with high poverty rates, could make it easier for radical groups to take hold. (AFP)