The Interfaith Peace Platform received the 2015 Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize for its efforts to end the squabbling among the country’s three major faiths.
“Things are slowly getting better,” said Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, the president of the country’s Islamic Council and one of three clerics organizing for peace.
“In Bangui, and even in the countryside, Muslims are are no longer in ghettos like before. Today, the armed groups, as such, are no longer on the offensive.”
Once known as French Equatorial Africa, the CAR faced raids, domination and annexation from Muslim, French, German and Belgian invaders from the 16th and 17th centuries upward. The largest anti-colonial rebellion in Africa – known as the ‘war of the hoe handle’ began here in 1928 but was kept secret because it provided evidence of strong opposition to French colonial rule and forced labor.
After many anti-democracy leaders took power and were later deposed (including the so-called Emperor Bokassa), the country was again in the grip of a fierce religious power struggle in 2012 between the Seleka, predominantly Muslim fighters, and Christian militias called anti-balaka (anti-machete).
The conflict forced nearly half a million people into neighboring countries, displacing half a million more inside CAR, a landlocked country rich in gold, diamonds and timber.
Hoping to end vicious cycles of revenge killings and despite the personal risk involved, the three religious leaders visited villages and cities, talking to communities about peace, tolerance and trust.
Bangui’s Catholic Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga said they sought “to defend an ideal, and to save the lives of Christians and Muslims”. It is this work that was honored by the peace prize, named after the UN diplomat killed alongside colleagues in a 2003 bombing in Baghdad.
Although the three lobbied the international community to send U.N. peacekeepers, Pastor Nicolas Guérékoyaméné-Gbangou, the third member of the interfaith trio, said some of his compatriots now regretted the decision to invite the U.N.’s Minusca, questioning the soldiers’ motives for being in the country. Several charges of abhorrent sexual attacks on young African children by French troops are currently under investigation.
While expressing optimism that their people could forgive each other over time, the religious leaders cautioned that progress was piecemeal and threatened by growing criminality – as well as the continued presence of armed groups.
Launched in 2011, the award was first given to the Rev. Daniel Marcal of ONG Esperanca (NGO Hope). The group provided care and support for victims of AIDS in East Timor.