Washington D.C., Apr 21, 2014 / 09:55 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Despite the violence currently plaguing the Central African Republic, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick believes the country can recover if it abandons vengeance and focuses on a shared sense of humanity.
“It is a rich country in its natural resources and its human resources, which is why it's a shame that they have had to suffer so,” the archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., told CNA on April 15, after returning from a trip to visit the conflict-torn country.
While “we weren't there long enough to do a lot,” Cardinal McCarrick said, the delegation promoted a vision of peace focused on the fact that “we're all brothers and sisters in God's one human family.”
The cardinal traveled to the Central African Republic in early April, alongside Imam Mohamed Magid of the Islamic Society of North America and Pastor Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, as part of a U.S. State Department delegation to religious leaders in the country.
Violence broke out in Central African Republic in December 2012. Seleka rebels, loosely organized groups that drew primarily Muslim fighters from other countries, ousted the president and installed their own leader in a March 2013 coup.
The Seleka were officially disbanded, but its members continued to commit crimes such as pillaging, looting, rape and murder.
In September 2013, after 10 months of terrorism at the hands of the Seleka, “anti-balaka” self-defense groups began to form. The anti-balaka picked up momentum in November, and the conflict in the nation took on a sectarian character, as some anti-balaka, many of whom are Christian, began attacking Muslims out of revenge for the Seleka’s acts.
The nation is now in the midst of continuing conflict among political, tribal, and religious groups.
Estimates place the number of displaced persons at around 900,000, close to 20 percent of the country's population, with an additional 2,000 people killed in the violence.
In February 2014, Archbishop Dieudonnè Nzapalainga of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, warned that many ethnic groups face genocidal violence due to the attacks by the anti-balaka.
Cardinal McCarrick described the nature of the conflict as “inter-religious problems as well as inter-tribal,” dominated by a mentality of people hurting others because “you treated us badly.”
Other observers have also noted the complex nature of the conflict, which is fueled by both self-defense and vengeance, and is not divided solely along religious lines.
The cardinal explained that their trip was limited to just a single day because their security detail felt “they could not be responsible for security if we stayed overnight,” even though they had “machine guns at the ready,” and refused to drive the delegation through certain dangerous areas.
In some neighborhoods, he added, “Muslim stores had been all burned out,” and in one area, he said they feared for Imam Mohamed Magid's safety because of the violence against Muslims in the region.
While in the country Cardinal McCarrick said, the delegation “met three major religious leaders who were trying desperately to find a road to peace” – Archbishop Nzapalainga, Imam Omar Kobine Layama and evangelical pastor Reverend Nicolas Guerekoyame Gbangou.
In a gesture of support, Cardinal McCarrick and the other members of the U.S. delegation signed the declaration as observers. While in Bangui, the cardinal also preached at the cathedral.
While there has been movement toward peace, the people of the Central African Republic still face many challenges, he said, including the refusal of some groups to abandon violence.
However, many people in the country are weary from the continued fighting and would welcome a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the cardinal continued, saying that many of the people he talked to expressed that “we need to stay together or else the country will go up in smoke.”
“There's enough people that understand that you have to live together,” he observed.
Together, Cardinal McCarrick said, he hopes that the delegation and local religious leaders displayed a message that despite religious differences, all people are God's “children and that means we need to work together.”
The presence of United States officials could also be an inspiration for peace, he added. Because “we made great progress in the U.S.” in working alongside one another despite religious differences, “we can show them how we get along together.”
He expressed deep hope that people in the Central African Republic will continue to work toward peace.
“We have to get people talking with each other,” he said. “If you do that, you get to understand each other” and can eventually reach a situation in which “you get to appreciate each other.”
Despite the challenges, Cardinal McCarrick said he was hopeful that the Central African Republic could work to build justice and forgiveness.
“In my business you've got to be always hopeful,” he observed.
The cooperation between the religious leaders in the country, the cardinal explained, “has demonstrated how good it can be,” as has the involvement of Catholic Relief Services, which has offered aid to displaced persons and those affected by the widespread violence.
“We in the U.S. can be so pleased we have Catholic Relief Services,” he said of the organization's work. “It's a blessing we have CRS.”