CHICAGO, IL (August 4, 2014)—In April, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, traveled with two other United States religious leaders to Central African Republic (CAR) to help promote peace in the country where violence has broken out generally along religious lines since last year. Traveling with Anderson were Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and Imam Mohamed Magid of the Islamic Society of North America.
They met in Bangui with religious leaders of that country as well as representatives of the warring factions and CAR interim president Catherine Samba-Panza. The CAR religious leaders signed a declaration for peace, “renouncing violence and encouraging intercommunity and inter-religious dialogue to mitigate tensions and lay the foundations for a new peaceful coexistence in CAR.”
Roughly 25 percent of the population has been displaced and 2,600 people killed since the conflict erupted in December 2013 between the rebel group Seleka, made up primarily of Muslims, and a militia group called anti-Balaka, made up mostly of Christians and animists. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities.
In a recent conversation with Covenant President Gary Walter, Anderson discussed his experience in CAR.
Gary: Can you talk about the violence being a religious conflict?
Leith: There are such different interpretations as to its cause, and I don’t by any means pretend to be an expert on it, but I think it is yet another example of where things that are not primarily religious conflicts have co-opted religious affiliations into their system.
Gary: What is the religious composition of CAR?
Leith: Evangelicals have a long tradition in CAR. The population is assessed by Time to be 52 percent evangelical. That’s astonishing. About 25 or 26 percent are Roman Catholic, 15 percent Muslim, and the rest animist. It’s a country where evangelicals have had great and wonderful influence and are now going through extremely troubled times.
Gary: What were some of the moments that left an impression on you?
Leith: Bangui is a little airport. When we landed, there were 100,000 people there. The runway, which was probably a mile long, was just lined with children—both sides all the way down. There are a couple thousand French troops in the country, and their headquarters are at the airport, so it’s perceived by the people to be a safe place. It’s a place you can go.
Gary: Can you describe the meetings you had?
Leith: At one meeting, we had all the factions in one room, and one evangelical brother stood up and said, “Thirteen of my brothers were burned to death in the same day.” And then a Muslim leader stood up and said, “My people were praying in a mosque and someone threw a hand grenade through the window.” These are suffering people.
But I also heard people—Muslim and Christian alike—talk about making peace.
We were there to have an agreement, and it was all signed, and the three of us from the United States were the witnesses on behalf of the United States. One man—I can’t even remember what the religious background of the person was—stood up in this group of warring factions, and he said, “What this is about is—it’s not about politics, it’s not about the United States, it’s not about an agreement, it’s not about me. What it’s about is this country needs God, and we have forgotten.”
The prophet was in their own country. How marvelous is that! We weren’t the prophets coming and telling them what to do. They were there doing it. I think that there are really good and godly people who are stepping up. Sometimes they’ve done so at the cost of their lives and their families, certainly at the cost of their buildings. And they’re doing the right thing, and I think that God’s going to honor and bless that.
Gary: We have missionaries working with an agriculture project in CAR, and they recently talked about so many of their neighbors having to flee the country.
Leith: The stories of violence coming out of CAR are horrifying. It’s forced people in the villages to disperse, and no one knows where many of them are. They couldn’t plant their crops. It’s a country with 4.5 million people, and they didn’t plant their crops. There could be widespread famine.
But I’m also persuaded that Africa is the future. Africa has everything. Nobody else has everything, but Africa does. So I’m hopeful. And actually Rwanda’s done pretty well. Mozambique, which was a mess, has done really pretty well. They’re coming back.
Gary: We’ve been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 77 years and seen terrible violence at times throughout that period, but we’re resolutely committed to serving there. Now stability is coming to some measure. That’s why we’re pushing so forcefully with Covenant Kids Congo, our partnership with World Vision, to really get a foothold and get systemic change in place. We actually have a chance to turn around the most overlooked province, and right now the United Nations rates it as one of the neediest countries in the world. And from there, hopefully inject health. I think we actually feel more hopeful now than almost at any point since we’ve been there.
Editor’s note: The Seleka and anti-Balaka signed a cease-fire agreement on July 23 in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. It fell apart two days later.
For an expanded conversation between Leith Anderson and Gary Walter, click here.