Tens of thousands of Christians who have fled violent attack by Muslim rebels are sheltering at a Catholic mission in a town called Bossangoa, about 250 miles north of the capital, Bangui. Last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that the country was “on the verge of genocide.”
CAR is a mostly Christian and animist country, a little smaller than Texas, with a long history of instability. The U.N. says virtually the entire population of 4.6 million is affected by the current crisis, which erupted almost a year ago when an Islamic rebel alliance called Seleka began launching attacks.
Last March, Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize, a Christian former army chief who had himself toppled an elected president in 2003, the latest in a series of coups since independence from France in 1960. The rebel coalition installed its leader, Michel Djotodia – a Soviet-educated Muslim civil servant – as president.
In August, a transitional period envisaging elections in 18 months formally began, but elements of the now supposedly-disbanded Seleka are continuing to carry out attacks on Christian civilians, with murders, summary executions, pillaging, sexual violence and church burnings reported.
Christian vigilante groups have begun to fight back since September. The U.N. Children’s Fund said on Friday the number of children now fighting, on both sides of the conflict, has risen to an estimated 6,000. Some 400,000 people have been displaced.
Briefing the Security Council, deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson said the country was experiencing unprecedented Muslim-Christian violence. “Traditional harmony among communities has been replaced by polarization and widespread horror.”
“The CAR is becoming a breeding ground for extremists and armed groups in a region that is already suffering from conflict and instability,” he said. “If this situation is left to fester, it may degenerate into a religious and ethnic conflict with longstanding consequences, a relentless civil war that could easily spill over into neighboring countries.”
“Some call this a forgotten crisis,” Eliasson said. “The world is haunted by the horrors of crises that we watched from a distance spiral into atrocities. We must never forget.”
He laid out several options for the world body, including bilateral, multilateral or U.N. support funded through a trust fund. But he came down squarely behind one proposal – to transform a 2,500-strong African-led mission into a U.N. peacekeeping operation comprising an estimated 6,000 troops and 1,700 police personnel.
Such a force, he said, would “lay the foundation for transparent, accountable and resilient institutions” and, hopefully, “enhance the international community’s ability to apply political leverage.”
The French representative at the meeting, Gerard Araud, told reporters afterwards France was circulating a draft Security Council resolution which he hoped would be adopted next week, to authorize and provide support for 3,600-strong African mission.
“We have the African force, the African countries are committed to act,” he said. “So the emergency commends that we support the African force.”
Araud said France did not rule out the possibility of a U.N. peacekeeping force further “down the road,” pending a report on the issue by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.
France has around 400 troops in CAR, mainly protecting its assets and the airport in the former. Araud confirmed reports that it now plans to bolster that force. Reports from France said the number could now rise to 1,200.
“This force will be there to support the African force,” Araud said.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said on Twitter the council needs to authorize a strong mandate for the African and French troops, to “expand presence, protect civilians, [and] confront terrorizing militia.”
The Christian religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors says it is helping victims of rape in CAR to obtain medical attention and trauma counselling, but that any sustainable assistance program will need the restoration of stability there.
“The situation in the Central African Republic is growing more tense and worrisome every day,” said Open Doors USA President/CEO David Curry. “It’s not a world focus right now, but the situation should be. Please join me in prayer that the violence will not increase and Christians and Muslims can live in peace and freedom for all.”