Cardinal in Central Africa Pays Tribute to Imam Who Worked to Unite Christians, Muslims

Dieudonné Cardinal Nzapalainga with late Imam Omar Kobine Lamaya.

The Cardinal in the Central African Republic (CAR) has eulogized the late Imam Omar Kobine Lamaya, acknowledging his tireless work for unity and as one who had “respect and appreciation” for all people.

The Immam who was the President of the Higher Islamic Council of CAR (CICA) died in Bangui on 28 November at the age of 66.

In a report published by Agenzia Fides, Dieudonné Cardinal Nzapalainga who worked with Imam Lamaya described the Islamic leader as a symbol of unity in a country that has been in conflict since 2012.

“It is a baobab that has fallen, because this man was a scholar, a man of wisdom, who spoke of unity and had respect and appreciation for his fellow men,” Cardinal Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of Bangui said.

The Imam was one of the co-founders of the Platform of Religions of CAR (PCRC), which since 2012 has brought together Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as the Muslim community he represented.

Other founders are Cardinal Nzapalainga who represents the Catholic Church and Pastor Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, the head of the Evangelical Alliance.

The three have reportedly sought to move attention away from religious motives for violence, highlighting that religious differences did not cause the conflict.

“We fought together to preserve unity, invited to respect and appreciate each other,” recalls the 53-year-old Cardinal, who referred to the late Imam as “my elder brother.”

At the height of tension in CAR, Seleka fighters launched an offensive against CAR government in December 2012, and both seized the capital city of Bangui and staged a coup in March 2013.

In response to brutality by Seleka forces, “anti-balaka” coalitions of Christian fighters formed to carry out reprisal violence against Seleka fighters, adding an element of religious animosity to the violence that had previously been absent. 

In September 2013, anti-balaka forces began committing widespread revenge attacks against mostly Muslims civilians, displacing tens of thousands of people to Seleka-controlled areas in the North.

PCRC’s key message since the armed conflict began has been to remove religious animosity from the violence.

The PCRC, which received the UN Human Rights Award in 2015 as a tribute to its peace work was among the early actors to disseminate the non-religiosity of the conflict through various media outlets and, particularly to the international community.

Reports indicate that on 30 September 2018, members of the platform, Cardinal Nzapalainga and Imam Layama, in the presence of the prime minister of CAR, Simplice Mathieu Sarandji, delivered a speech calling for reconciliation. 

Christians represent the country’s religious majority, accounting for 25 percent of Roman Catholic believers and 25 percent Protestants, 35 percent of the population professes indigenous beliefs, and 15 percent are Muslims.

Traditionally, the different religious groups are said to have lived together in peaceful co-existence. The Southern and Northwestern regions of the country are by comparison rather densely inhabited and mainly Christian. In contrast, the Northeast is relatively sparsely populated and is predominantly Muslim.

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