Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich – Religious Violence in the Central African Republic
By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
In view of the June 2 release of the US State Department Report on International Religious Freedomthe United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan commission created by Congress, has released its Annual Report.
In addition to reporting on the state of religious freedom around the world, the USCIRF report contains recommendations for U.S. policy, as well as recommendations for Country of Special Concern and Special Watch List designations.
The Central African Republic is included in the recommendations of the USCIRF 2022 Special Watch List.
In recent years, as religious violence has declined in the country, USCIRF has downgraded the Central African Republic from a country of particular concern, which includes the most serious violators of religious freedom, to a country on the special list. watchdog, which denies the free exercise of faith, then removed the Central African Republic entirely from both lists.
Tragically, the trend of improving religious freedom status in the Central African Republic has recently reversed, bringing the country back to USCIRF’s Special Watch List.
As both reports revealed, a significant contributor to the escalation of violence in the Central African Republic is the Russian-backed Wagner Group, which, according to the State Department, “exploits insecurity to expand its presence in Africa, threatening stability, good governance and respect for human rights”. (For context, the Wagner Group’s financier and director is Russian oligarch, Yevgeniy Prigozhin — whose Kremlin catering contracts earned him the nickname “Putin’s boss.”)
Although the conflict in the Central African Republic is fueled by political and economic interests, it is largely fought between ethnic and religious groups.
Since 2012, Muslim-dominated militias, known collectively as the Seleka, launched an insurgency, which led to the capture of Bangui, the capital, and the staging of a coup. As a result, militias from predominantly Christian and folk-religious communities formed to guard against the brutality of the Seleka forces.
As USCIRF describes, “This has sparked more than half a decade of political and ethno-religious violence, including attacks on individuals based on their religious identity and deliberate attacks on places of worship and religious enclaves in cities across [the Central African Republic].”
A United Nations peacekeeping operation was deployed to the country in 2014, but after failing to bring stability to the beleaguered nation, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra turned to Russia for help in obtaining military instructors and weapons .
In 2017, the United Nations Security Council approved an arms embargo waiver, which allowed Russia to provide security assistance and training to the government of the Central African Republic. The Touadéra government brought in the Wagner group and by 2021, it is estimated 1,200 to 2,000 Wagners staff operated in the country.
But according to the deputy director of the Africa program of the International Crisis Group Pauline Bax“Rather than eradicating armed groups, [Wagner Group] contractors commit abuses that increasingly fuel violence.
In the aftermath of President Touadéra’s controversial re-election in 2020, rebel groups united, mobilized and launched an offensive. The Wagner Group played an active role in the successful government counter-offensive that followed.
However, in March 2021, concerns about Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic were raised by the United Nations Mercenary Task Force. Wagner Group mercenaries, working alongside the national army, allegedly committed “serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law”, including mass executions, arbitrary detentions, torture and enforced disappearances .
As more details emerged, USCIRF later concluded in its April 2022 report, “In 2021, [Central African Republic] authorities and state-sanctioned foreign fighters with ties to the Russian government have killed or facilitated the execution of Muslims based on their religious identity.
According observers, all Muslims in the Central African Republic are effectively insurgents in the eyes of the Wagner group. Notably, USCIRF cited many United Nations reports which found an “increase in targeted attacks against the civilian population, especially Muslims”, and that targeted arrests of suspected rebels “disproportionately affected religious and ethnic minorities such as Muslims and Fulani”.
The State Department came to a similar conclusion in its latest report on international religious freedom and wrote:International and local observers said Muslim civilians were disproportionately targeted, and in some cases indiscriminately killed, by government security forces and Wagner Group forces during operations against rebel groups in the central and northwestern regions of the country.
Although Russia has a clear economic and political interest in the Central African Republic (particularly in its gold and diamond mining industries), the involvement of the Wagner Group in this conflict underscores that attacks on religious freedom can extend beyond a nation’s borders and intersect with many underlying factors.
For the United States to remain a vigilant champion of religious freedom, we must hold all violators accountable, no matter where or how they deny this fundamental human right.