Baroness Warsi meets Central African Republic religious leaders

Muslim men sit inside the St. Pierre church where they and hundreds of other Muslims seek refuge in Boali, Central African Republic, some 80kms (50 miles) north-west of Bangui Thursday January 23, 2014.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The UK's Minister for Faith and Communities met with two of CAR's most prominent religious leaders yesterday on Monday and pledged to uphold the British commitment to ending the humanitarian crisis.

The Central African Republic has been beset by violence since March last year, when a coalition of rebel groups, led by Michel Djotodia under the Séléka banner, drove out President Francois Bozizé in a coup. The rebels had previously been fighting to gain power across the north of the country where the Muslim minority, around 14 per cent of the total population, is largely based.

Djotodia took control of a transitional government but eventually lost control of his Séléka forces. He officially disbanded the group in September, but its members have continued their attacks - raping, looting and murdering innocent civilians - which have resulted in a group of opponents forming against them under the name anti-Balaka.

The violence has spread throughout the country, resulting in 200,000 people being internally displaced, while an estimated 20,000 have fled the country. Hundreds of deaths have been reported, though it is likely that the real number of fatalities is in the thousands.

The media has reported that the country is splitting along sectarian lines, with fears of inter-faith genocide. Séléka soldiers are labelled as a Muslim force, intent on establishing an Islamic state, while anti-Balaka is considered 'Christian militia'.

However, religious and political leaders have criticised this simplistic view, and argue that it is not, in fact, a battle between Muslims and Christians at all.

Nicolas Guerékoyamé-Gbangou, an MP in CAR, gave a guest lecture at London's School of Oriental and African Studies earlier this month during which he claimed: "There is no Christian militia and there is no Muslim militia as well... This conflict is not religious at all."

He explained that the anti-Balaka militias developed from local village self-defence groups originally formed against cattle rustlers and bandits. He also shared that around 90 per cent of Séléka is made up of foreign nationals from neighbouring countries Chad and Sudan.

"The conflict is not religious; it is political. Those who led the country did not share resources and wealth," he concluded.

This is the same message received by Baroness Warsi as she met with Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Kabine Layama, two-thirds of the CAR's Inter-Religious Forum, at the House of Lords yesterday.

Following the meeting she praised the two men's "leadership and courage" in their ongoing efforts to put an end to the violence besieging their nation.

"Their message to me was the violence in CAR should not be seen as a fight between different faiths, but rather as the legacy of neglect, economic marginalisation and political exploitation," she noted.

"They expressed their confidence and hope that, with sufficient help, CAR's communities can live together side-by-side in peace once more."

The two leaders also urged the international community to increase their humanitarian efforts, as the people of CAR endure "appalling levels of violence and suffering" in the midst of the conflict.

Baroness Warsi assured that the UK will "maintain its commitment to the people of CAR, and stand with them in this dark hour".

In December, Foreign Secretary William Hague noted that the UK has been one of the largest donors of humanitarian assistance to the people of CAR since the beginning of the conflict, having offered £15 million in aid as well as working alongside international charities such as the Red Cross to help give the most vulnerable people access to vital supplies such as food, water, shelter and medicine.

"We are determined to play our part in helping to address the violence," he said.

Baroness Warsi said Mark Simmonds, the Minister for Africa, would discuss the ongoing crisis with African leaders at the African Union Summit this week.