RELIGIOUS leaders in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been awarded a peace prize for their work trying to hold the conflict-racked country together.
The three leaders — the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, the Most Revd Dieudonné Nzapalainga; the President of the Central African Islamic Community, Imam Omar Kobine Layama; and the President of the country’s Evangelical Alliance, the Revd Nicolas Guérékoyama-Gbangou — have been awarded the UN’s Sérgio Vieira de Mello Award for their work in reconciling Muslim and Christian groups.
At the height of the recent conflict in the country, in 2013, when Muslim rebel groups seized power and terrorised the majority Christian population, leading to counter-attacks by Christian militia groups, the three leaders set up the Interfaith Peace Platform.
They travelled the length and breadth of the country, talking to communities about peace and tolerance, and trying to rebuild trust between faith groups and end the cycle of revenge killings.
Archbishop Nzapalainga said that he was honoured by the award, and that it belonged to “ordinary people from all walks of life who have refused to be overwhelmed by the violence, and instead with brave hearts go and talk peace and reconciliation in their communities”.
Mr Guérékoyama-Gbangou said: “You can take away their weapons, but if you don’t disarm their hearts, they’ll always find more weapons.”
Speaking at the award ceremony in Geneva, Mr Layama said that the situation in his country was slowly improving, but that CAR was still a “powder keg”.
Last week, up to 16 people were killed in a single incident when Christian militia beheaded a Muslim youth, leading to reprisals, Reuters reported. Humanitarian workers were also attacked.
Nineteen humanitarian workers have so far been killed in the crisis in CAR. It was international lobbying by the three faith leaders that led to the decision to send a 10,000- strong UN peacekeeping force, known as Minusca, to the country in September last year.
This peacekeeping force has been tarnished, however, by reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the force against women and children, and also by French peacekeepers sent to the country after the violence flared in 2013.
In May, ten armed groups agreed to a peace accord, a step hailed by the UN as important progress towards peace.
Up to a million people have been displaced by the conflict, half a million of those internally. About 2.7 million people in CAR are surviving on international aid.
Elections in the country are planned for later this year, with the support of the peacekeeping missions.
The Sérgio Vieira de Mello Award is named after a UN Special Representative who was killed by a bomb in Baghdad on 19 August 2003. The anniversary of his death is now designated World Humanitarian Day.