BANGUI, Central African Republic (BP) -- An escalating cycle of violence between Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic is raising questions for missionaries about the future of the church in the region.
Retaliatory attacks between the two religious groups are wracking the western part of the nation with out-of-control bloodshed. According to BBC News, the republic is "a nation consumed by rage."
"There's a lot of stress, a lot of tension," said Ron Pontier, who has served for 30 years as a mission pilot for a Christian organization in Central African Republic (CAR) and neighboring countries.
There are also massacres, summary killings and torture, and a quarter of the country needs food aid urgently.
Seleka, an alliance of Muslim rebel groups, overthrew the government in March 2013 and attacked Christian businesses with widespread looting -- part of a thrust to take over the country, which was formerly only 10 to 15 percent Muslim, Pontier said.
International peacekeepers came in to disarm the rebel alliance, finally overturning Seleka's power in January 2014, but that made way for a new problem, according to Pontier. A militia called "anti-balaka," or anti-machete, that identifies itself as Christian began taking revenge on Seleka rebels and the Muslim population in general.
"The peacekeeping forces are having a huge problem, because if they disarm Muslims, the anti-balaka come in and kill the Muslims," Pontier said. "It's almost impossible to know how to bring the thing to an end."
But Pontier keeps going there to encourage believers and pray with them for the fighting to stop.
"They really need to have peace -- that's the big thing. The Christians and Muslims need to be able to forgive and live together peacefully," he said.
Nik Ripken,* an expert on the persecuted church in Muslim contexts, agreed.
"The challenge for the Central African Republic is an answer to an old question for Africa that is still awaiting a positive, Africa-changing answer," said Ripken, who has served more than 25 years with IMB.
"Per usual, Christians and Muslims in the CAR are divided along tribal fault lines. Racism perhaps is the consistent tool that Satan uses most often to terrorize the innocent, molest the girl child and kill indiscriminately," he said.
Many may wonder when Africa will stop being defined by its deep divides. Ripken said that is a big question that Jesus took even deeper.
"Jesus stated the obvious that it is easy to love one's friends," he said. "But He raised the bar when He commanded that we love our enemies. Christians, if indeed we are followers of Jesus, know that violence begets violence and the cycle never ends. Jesus calls His children to go first, lay down their guns and actually believe that love wins over racism and hate."
Because of the violent instability, neither Pontier's organization nor the International Mission Board has missionaries stationed in Central African Republic -- they're limited to visits like the one Pontier made in early February.
The mayhem has taken a toll on the church too, Pontier said.
"It's hard to tell how many churches are left -- lots of people have been displaced, and many churches have gathered together," he shared. "But because of the war, so many people are coming to Christ. Thousands and thousands are turning to the Lord in the midst of the persecution."
But even so, Pontier said he has a great fear -- that lack of discipleship will mean the slow death of Christianity in Central African Republic and its neighboring countries.
"Christians are not being discipled and there is little personal spiritual growth, and it is sad for me to see that this is happening," he said. "Islam is really pushing to take over that whole area, and because it is considered 'reached,' a lot of missionary organizations don't put much effort into it."
Muslim Fulani herdsmen are slowly moving into Central African Republic and bringing their influence with them, Pontier said. BBC and other news outlets reference "a long war to come in which Muslims will seize back half the country for themselves."
Pontier said it makes him tremble when he thinks of how that might stifle the rapid spread of the Gospel taking place there right now.
"If we leave Central African Republic, if we leave Congo, if we don't disciple, probably within five to 10 years those places will be unreached," he said.
That is one reason he keeps going into those countries -- to encourage Christians to aggressively disciple.
Tim Cearley, IMB strategy leader for sub-Saharan Africa, echoes Pontier's focus.
"My main prayer request for CAR and that whole western equatorial area is that God would raise up a team of experienced trainers -- IMB and other internationals -- to live in this area and serve as church-planting catalysts and researchers that help empower the many struggling churches to finish the task of reaching the lost," Cearley said.
Peyton Queen,* another IMB strategist, agreed, saying his prayer is that the Lord would strengthen the believers to be a bold witness in spite of the suffering and disruption that is happening to them personally and to their countrymen.
"I pray that God would use these national believers to remain strong in their faith, and in spite of the difficulties that godly actions would accompany a strong verbal Gospel witness," Queen said. "We pray too that God would bring real peace to the nation and that neighboring countries would contribute to that peace as well."PRAY:
-- Pray for believers in Central African Republic to be shining lights in the midst of the darkness of war, hatred, tribalism and greed.
-- Ask God to direct the steps of missionaries so that they can make the contacts needed to encourage believers in CAR and to mobilize believers in nearby countries who could come in to help disciple Christians and reach out to unbelievers.
-- Pray that this country can become a place known for peace through knowing the Prince of Peace.
To learn more about IMB work in sub-Saharan Africa, visit subsaharanafricanpeoples.imb.org
Ava Thomas is an IMB writer/editor based in Europe. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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