The Central African Republic made headlines recently when French troops entered the country on a peace-keeping mission sanctioned by the UN. Violence and uprisings are no strangers to the country that has endured intermittent conflict since becoming an independent nation in 1960. What is different now are the religious undertones of the violence that pits members of the loosely organized Muslim Seleka against the organically formed Christian militias, Anti-Balakas.

Christians represent the overwhelming majority in the country, but the Seleka, meaning “alliance,” have been in control since March through militarily seizing the government. The rebel group has been terrorizing the country for over two years through looting, mass rapes, executions, and abductions. Anti-Balakas, or anti-machetes, are weakly armed militia groups that have sprung up more recently in reaction. Though Seleka rebels are targets for the militias, unarmed civilians have more often been the victim of their rage. Most of those victims are Muslims and Seleka thugs have targeted Christians in reprisal attacks.A dangerous and volatile cycle is thus forming.

History has seen too many cases of violence between an ethnic or religious minority and majority. Most of which end tragically, leading observers to imagine the possibility of genocide when any religious or ethnic battle begins. After all, Sudan is a neighboring country and few have forgotten the atrocities committed in Darfur in the name of ethnic cleansing.

It is welcome news for many, then, that the French so quickly responded with a contingent of 1,600 troops, and the UN unanimously adopted a peace-keeping resolution further allocating funding for the 6,000 man Multinational Force of Central Africa to become under the control of the African Union and deploy in the region. Forces have already begun disarming militants on both sides and gaining ground in the capitol city, Bangui.

New “president” and former Seleka leader, Michel Djotodia, seems to be compliant with the disarming process and even requested humanitarian aid in one of his first moves after assuming control. He dissolved the rebel group and officially formed transitional government organizations almost immediately. These groups lack funding and power due to an absence of majority support and the country being in disarray.

Over 400,000 people are internally displaced and 2.3 million, or half the country, are in need of humanitarian assistance according to the UN. Most local security forces are controlled by Seleka forces that lack any coordination or central leadership. Some are attempting to restore order, actually policing other Seleka rebels, but no one can be sure who to trust and most of the rebels are intent on looting.

Rather than religious motivation, the Seleka power grab seems to be at least partially based on material desire in the mineral rich country. Rebels have consistently looted and Michel Djotodia only appears to want to hang on to political power for at least another 18 months, when he claims he will step down. The religiously motivated violence can be defused if international security forces continue to focus on disarmament and tempering the rebel looting.

Tyson Watkins

Sources: International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, New York Times, The Borgen Project, BBC News, United Nations, Al JazeeraABC News