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Faith Leaders in the Central African Republic Replace Weapons With Words

Years of chronic underdevelopment in one of the poorest countries in the world laid the groundwork for the current crisis in Central African Republic (CAR), triggered in late 2013.

In a political struggle for power, leaders on all sides have used religion as a means to divide people. More than a million people have been displaced by fighting, and many in CAR now live in camps protected by UN peacekeepers. More than half of its 4.5 million people are in need of emergency assistance.

As my plane landed in CAR in June, I couldn't help but wonder: "Is there hope in this deeply divided country, where children can buy a hand grenade for a dollar at the local market?"

I visited the town of Yaloke, which is around 250 kilometres northwest of the capital Bangui. The community is deeply divided along religious lines. Last year, the fighting between the Muslim and the Christian communities in Yaloke intensified once again, resulting in many deaths. Displaced Muslims now live in the midst of a Christian community in an UN-protected camp.

During my visit, I saw two groups who used to live peacefully together watching a football match. What struck me was that while enjoying the same game, they were watching it separated by a UN tank. At first, it looks like they just have good seats to watch the football game. But this is as close as these two men can safely get to the action.

This community, Yaloke, is divided between the Christian host community and the displaced Muslims living in an UN-protected camp. And yet, even if they're not watching it together, they are watching the same game. This is in many ways thanks to this group of Christian and Muslim faith leaders who came together at the height of the conflict to negotiate the peace and safety across their communities.

As a result, this community is one of the few in CAR that still has both Christians and Muslims living in the same town. Risking their own lives, faith leaders decided to build trust between each other, and so enabled trust across their communities.

They have now become an example for the rest of the country. They have shown to each other and the people around them that words can replace weapons. Their story brings hope for a better tomorrow in the Central African Republic, but also brings lessons for so many troubled parts of the world today. These leaders are demonstrating that even in contexts as complex as CAR, local initiatives to build peace in divided communities are possible- and they work.

It is important that we learn from them and support them in building peace one step at a time.

Those of us who seek to help to bring an end to conflicts like CAR do well to learn from local peacebuilders and to support them. They have the ability to bring lasting peace.

As the experience in Yaloke shows, sometimes all that is required is one courageous and careful conversation at a time.

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