The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equal protection under the law regardless of religion. It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism.” The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion. The government continued to exercise limited or no control or influence in most of the country. Police and the gendarmerie (military police) continued to fail to stop or punish abuses committed by armed groups, such as killings, physical abuse, and gender-based violence, including those based on religious affiliation, according to human rights organizations. In February the government and 14 of the country’s armed groups signed a peace agreement that included commitments to safeguard places of worship from violent attacks. In June the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2018 to investigate serious human rights violations and alleged war crimes, announced that three of the 29 investigations launched since its inception could lead to trials. In July the government signed a tripartite agreement with Cameroon and the United Nations to facilitate voluntary repatriation of 250,000 predominantly Muslim citizens living as refugees in Cameroon. In September the International Criminal Court (ICC) began pretrial hearings in the case of an anti-Balaka commander and member of parliament accused of war crimes, as well as a second anti-Balaka leader.
The predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka militia forces continued to occupy territories in the western and northern parts of the country, respectively, and sectarian clashes between them and Christian and Muslim populations continued. Government forces usually did not intervene to curtail the violence. In May members of the armed group 3R attacked villages in the northwest of the country, killing more than 50 civilians allegedly in retaliation for the death of a member of a Muslim ethnic minority group. The government called on the leader of the armed group, appointed to a government advisor position following the signing of the February peace accord, to hand over those responsible. On May 16, the 3R handed over to the government three commanders accused of the killings. At year’s end, they were detained in Bangui and awaiting trial. Also in May, an unknown assailant killed a 77-year-old nun. The motive for the killing remained unclear.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that religion continued to be a primary feature dividing the population. Many Muslim communities remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely, either due to lack of protection from the government or because of intimidation by anti-Balaka units. During the year, the country’s top religious leaders remained united in their view that the violence in the country caused by the armed groups was based primarily on the desire to control territory for their economic gain. In May at the start of Ramadan, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Islamic Community in the country, called for the strengthening of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence of religious communities.
In meetings with President Faustin Touadera and other government officials, U.S. embassy representatives raised concerns about the government’s failure to safeguard religious freedom and advocated the safe voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their home communities. They encouraged the government representatives to implement outreach activities aimed at religious communities and publicly condemn attacks on religious structures and against religious groups. Embassy officials regularly engaged with religious leaders to listen to their concerns and issues, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga and other Christian leaders, imams, and members of the Coordinating Committee for Central African Muslim Organizations. In March the Ambassador hosted a roundtable for religious leaders designed to bridge gaps, strengthen relationships, and encourage freedom of religious choice and practice.