One of Africa’s worst conflicts may have finally ended through a rare type of diplomacy. On June 19, more than a dozen armed groups in the Central African Republic signed a peace accord. Yet they did not do so through an official negotiator. Rather a religious group in Italy used what it calls a “spiritually inspired” method – building empathy and compassion – to help forge a truce.
This diplomatic feat was achieved by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Roman Catholic lay group that works quietly and discreetly around the world to end conflicts. It puts prayer at the heart of its mediation. Its efforts have been so successful that the United Nations formally signed an agreement on June 9 to cooperate with Sant’Egidio in ending other conflicts. Its president, Marco Impagliazzo, says the group’s success lies in being seen as a neutral party that relies on patience and shared values to create trust between foes.
A Dutch scholar, Gerrie ter Haar, explains such faith-based diplomacy: “Bringing the spiritual dimension into the peacemaking process can create access to the more deep-seated, affective base of the parties’ behavior, enabling them to examine critically their own attitudes and actions.”
The conflict in the Central African Republic erupted in 2013 when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels took power, triggering violent reprisals by militia groups that are nominally Christian. As many as 6,000 people have died. From the start, however, local religious leaders – Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant – played a key part in protecting civilians and initiating talks. They described their “weapons” as “prayer and dialogue.”
As fears of genocide grew, however, the UN, France, and the African Union sent in troops to quell the fighting. This allowed the election of a new president last year, although his influence barely extends beyond the capital. When fighting erupted again in May and more than 100,000 people had to flee, Sant’Egidio was able to…