Bands of Muslim Seleka extremists still roam the empty streets and abandoned dwellings of Bangui, the capital of the C.A.R., hunting down and killing Christians who were not able to flee. Christians, enraged by Muslim atrocities, are in turn killing many Muslims. This scenario plays into the hands of extremist Islamists who want "holy war" in the C.A.R.

Just as in the past, it was not faith alone that fuelled hostility between the Muslim north Sudan and the Christian south, but gold; and now oil.

Catholic bishops…whose faithful have been persecuted, murdered and driven from their homeland, are left to hope that ultimately the blood of Christian martyrs will demand more resolute action from the Vatican.

When Muslim Seleka rebels of the Central African Republic's [C.A.R.] swept south to seize the capital city, Bangui, and ousted the Christian President Francois Bozize in March, 2013,[1] the event received sparse attention in Western media. What the media still seems unwilling to see is that the Seleka onslaught is unwittingly serving a wider offensive by Muslim extremists to expand the realm of Islam into the African continent's sub-Saharan interior.

Bangui, the capital of a country the size of Texas, has become a ghost town. Almost all of its citizens occupy a nearby airport protected by French troops. Bands of Muslim extremists still roam the empty streets and abandoned dwellings hunting down and killing Christians who were not able to flee. Moreover, small groups of Christians have returned to a few neighborhoods of Bangui to take revenge on isolated Muslim Seleka rebels, who having been cut off from their comrades and were discovered hiding in the ruins of the capital city.

Pictured in this Jan. 15, 2014 photograph are some of the 100,000 displaced persons taking refuge at Bangui airport in the Central African Republic. (Image source: European Commission DG ECHO/Pierre-Yves Scotto)

Although journalists may have dismissed events in the C.A.R. as just another example of a familiar pattern of instability in maladjusted former French colonies in Africa, the coup, along with the subsequent horrific mass murders of innocent men, women, and children by the Seleka jihadis, deserves closer scrutiny.

While the C.A.R., a majority Christian country in which Muslims make up only about 15% of the population, is among the poorest states in Africa, the country is replete with diamonds and other precious metals that make it an attractive prize for many of the country's political cliques and neighboring states. Bozize was, in fact, overthrown by his chief rival, the Muslim Michel Djotodia.

To guarantee his success, Djotodia made an alliance with a fearsome force of Muslim extremists. Yet, he soon lost control of his Seleka allies, who then proceeded to perpetrate a mass slaughter of Christians, hacking even babies to death. It was not until ethnic Ubangi Christians had organized their own self-defense "anti-balaka" (anti-sword) units that France sent hundreds of Legionnaires to fill the vacuum left by the disintegrating armed forces of the Central African Republic. Since then, although French, South African, and Chadian forces have restored an uneven and tenuous peace, the sectarian bloodletting after the Seleka seizure of power has driven at least a quarter of a million refugees, both Christian and Muslim, from their homes. While Djotodia was forced to resign on January 10, 2014 by regional leaders at a peace conference hosted by Chad, there is no guarantee that the Seleka extremists will end their raping, pillaging, and murder of Christians once peacekeeping troops depart the C.A.R., although troops from France, Chad, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain there in an effort to halt the bloodshed and restore some semblance of stability.

The one bright spot amidst the bloodbath is the joint effort by the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and the Grand Mufti of Islam in the C.A.R., Oumar Kobine Layama, to end the sectarian violence.

Islamization and Christian Resistance in Sub-Saharan Africa

The seizure of power by the Muslim Seleka, when examined within its historical context, underscores the continued vibrancy of the universal competition in Africa between evangelizing Christianity and militant Islam. Initially, the lightning-fast conquest of the Middle East and North Africa by Arab-Islamic armies in the first decades of Islam was slowed, in part, by topography. Where Saharan and Sahelian sand and brush gave way to Savannah and rainforest, the advance of the all-conquering, camel-mounted, nomadic Arab warriors came to a halt. Moreover, the majority of these sedentary, agricultural, sub-Saharan peoples had been already Christianized. Others were still comfortable with their ancestral religions.

The black African ethnic groups of the Congo (Kinshasa), Southern Sudan, and Central Africa resisted pressures to abandon their faith. Moreover; their resistance was aided as early as the 15th century by the political and spiritual support of the Vatican[2]. Further, many of these peoples were also negatively inclined towards Islam: Muslim slave traders from northern Sudan frequently preyed upon Congolese and Ubangi (Central African) Christians. [3]

The recent appearance on the world stage of Mali as a theater of the Muslim advance is also evidence of a resurgence of that land's historical role in the Islamic proselytizing process. The medieval, metropolitan Malian Muslim mini-states acted as intermediaries between Arabia and points south. The Sharif [Mayor] of Mecca, for instance, dispatched Muslim scholars and imams [preachers] to Mali with orders to build mosques and advance the faith in Africa. [4] Mali-based mullahs also served as intermediaries between Arabia and the peoples of West Africa, notably in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Moreover, Muslim merchants from the Saharan region linked up with their counterparts in the Malian city of Djenne. Together, they employed the Dyula people as guides to penetrate the rain forests of central Africa.[5] African acolytes of Islam also were commissioned by at least one Baghdad-based, Abbasid Caliph to carry the faith southward into the African interior.

Yet the pressures of conquest and conversion were only the most obvious dimensions of efforts to Islamize sub-Saharan Africa. More subtle lines of influence included the arrival of Muslim merchants in sub-Saharan African townships along the Guinean coast of West Africa. Initially, these traders served as carriers of Islam rather than proselytizers of the Muslim faith. Teachers, preachers, and settlers would arrive later, after pockets of Muslim immigrants had set down roots. Even in the interior, enterprising Muslim merchants found ways to establish new sub-Sahelian trade routes, bartering their wares for central African agricultural produce, including cotton, tobacco, and nuts. However, once these networks had been firmly established, Islamization set in. Islam became the bond of empire where Arab merchant and Muslim mullah worked together to first convert the elites and later the peasants to the faith of Muhammad.[6] Those who embraced Islam were connected to the global network of Muslim scholarship and rewarded with access to Muslim charitable and educational foundations. Many Central African young men were brought to the Islamic cultural capital of the continent, Timbuktu. Others were granted scholarships to attend the most prestigious Muslim academic center of al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt.[7]

Occasionally, non-religious events helped reinvigorate efforts to convert native peoples to Islam. After the discovery of a route south along the White Nile, for example, the Egyptian ruler Mohammad Ali energized Muslim forces to wage Jihad to incorporate southern Sudan into the already Islamized northern half of the region -- a contest that is still being waged in the Sudan today.[8] Just as in the past, it was not faith alone that fueled the hostility between the Muslim north Sudan and the Christian south, but gold. Of course, the struggle today also is over oil revenues. South Sudan has the oil. Sudan has the port to export the oil.

This renewed impetus to extend Islam into the African interior also spurred a new emphasis on completely Islamizing the value systems of the majority Muslim societies of West and East Africa. This restored enthusiasm was impeded, however, by two major factors. First was the rapid colonization of the African continent by European imperial rivals. Second was the reality that the Vatican-led medieval Christianization of central and southern Africa developed sound foundations.[9]

The religious struggle for the continent continues, and the competition for converts and the war for spiritual hegemony are brutally apparent in many African countries. The divide is most keenly felt in those states that are most evenly split between Islam and Christianity.[10] Pope Francis has already placed evangelization at the top of his list to renew the face of the Catholic Church. He has made it clear in his sermons and in a recently released 85-page "Exhortation" that he expects the clergy to serve his primary goal of propagation of the faith. They must do this not by preaching alone, but by Catholic action in the service of the poor and oppressed.[11] His African bishops will presumably aggressively press the preaching of the Gospels. They will do so despite fierce opposition by Muslim extremists. The blood of Catholic and other Christian martyrs in Africa already flows freely.

As evidence of the Pope's commitment to the propagation of the faith in Africa, he has just named new cardinals to the African countries of Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast[12] The emphasis Francis has placed on evangelization, particularly among the impoverished peoples of the Third World, is likely to bring the Catholic Church into a bruising encounter with Islam's own proselytizing efforts. Certainly, jihadi extremists will view the Pope's call for evangelization as a direct challenge.

The Pope's reiteration of the Vatican's long-standing demand for the Muslim world's acceptance of the principle of reciprocity -- equal religious rights and freedom of conscience -- is encouraging. He writes, "I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries."[13] However, his condemnation of Muslim acts of intolerance is more ambiguous. In the Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he seems firmly to condemn the excesses of Muslim fundamentalism. He writes that we are "faced with disconcerting instances of violent fundamentalism." [14] He warns, however, in the same sentence that, "we must avoid condemnatory generalizations."[15] He then overcompensates by stating that in an "authentic Islam and a proper reading of the Koran, one will see no justification for violence in Islam." This ambiguity, deliberate or not, appears to indicate that Pope Francis is not ready forcefully to take on Islamic extremism. Catholic bishops, however, in the countries of the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, whose faithful have been persecuted, murdered, and driven from their homelands, are left to hope that ultimately the blood of Christian martyrs will demand more resolute action from the Vatican.


[1] Terrorism Monitor Volume XI, Issue 7, April 4, 2013. Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C. Seleka rebels entered the capital Bangui on 24 March.
[2] Christianity, The Papacy and Mission in Africa by Richard Gray. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. 2012. pp. 5-7. The rise of Ottoman power made it imperative for Western Europe to find a trans-Atlantic alternative route, as the Mediterranean was controlled by the Turkish navy. Moreover, the entreaties of Christian Ethiopia and Christians in central Africa, all of whom were under Muslim pressure, combined to convince the Vatican to take a more resolute stance to protect the faithful against the Islamic advance.
[3] Ibid. pp. 16 and 91-92. The Vatican's condemnation of the institution of the slave trade and slavery was, in large part, initially elicited by Congolese converts to Catholic Christianity. Even Christians who had been sold into slavery and brought to the "new world" complained to Rome. This was particularly the case by Congolese Catholics who had been sent to Brazil to work on plantations.
[4] The Malian Muslim state of Soghay's ruler Askiya Ismail was invested with the insignia that his father had received in Cairo from the Baghdad-based Abbasid dynasty's caliph. This insignia consisted of a green gown and cape as well as a white turban and an Arabian sword. The symbolism attached to these gifts of investiture were signified the connection to the Prophet Muhammad. The Oxford History of Islam by John Esposito, Oxford University Press: Oxford, U.K., 1999. p. 483.
[5] Ibid. p.486.
[6] A History of Islamic Societies by Ira M. Lapidus. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. 2002. p.404.
[7] The Historical Atlas of Islam by Freeman-Grenville and Munro-Hay. Continuum Publications: London. 2002. p.288.
[8] Ibid. p.289.
[9] A History of Islamic Societies by Ira M. Lapidus. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K., 2002. p.738.
[10] These include the countries of Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This divide was the principal reason for the recent secession of Christian South Sudan from the Islamic Republic of Sudan. Other states that may soon experience increased religious tensions are Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast. Their populations are similarly approximately equal along the Christian-Islamic divide.
[11] Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) November 26 2013. Vatican City.
[12] New York Times, January 13, 2014 "Francis Looks to the Developing World in Naming New Cardinals."
[13] Evangelii Gaudium. Chapter Four "The Social Dimension of Evangelization", Section IV "Social Dialogue in a Context of Religious Freedom." Paragraph 252.
[14] Ibid. Paragraph 253.
[15] Ibid. Paragraph 253.

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