In Central African Republic, faith can be a death sentence

  • Article by: KRISTA LARSON , Associated Press
  • Updated: March 5, 2014 - 7:53 PM

Being Muslim was a town official’s death sentence.

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The fate of Saleh Dido shows how far the violence in the Central African Republic has gone. As thousands of Muslims fled Mbaiki, he vowed to carry on with his duties as deputy mayor and was later killed.

Photo: Amnesty International Joanne Mariner • Associated Press,

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– The swarm of people showed up on their deputy mayor’s doorstep late on a Friday morning, just before the time of the Muslim prayers.

By then, it no longer mattered that he was the deputy mayor. It didn’t matter that the mayor called him a brother, or that his family had lived in Mbaiki for almost a century. It didn’t even matter that his wife was pregnant. It mattered only that he was Muslim.

The fate of Saleh Dido shows how far the violence in the Central African Republic has gone, redefining who belongs here by their religion alone. It poses a deeply troubling question in a nation where hundreds of Muslims have been killed in just a few months: If even a prominent local official interviewed by a prominent Western aid group could not be saved in his hometown, who can?

No police officer tried to stop the attack on Dido. No resident helped him as he ran to escape. By the time the peacekeepers arrived, it was too late.

“Dido’s killing is a stain on the world’s moral conscience,” said Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser with Amnesty International who had spoken with him. “It’s terribly disappointing that the community — including his neighbors — didn’t protect him.”

Mariner noted that many Christians who have tried to help Muslims were threatened themselves, and that Dido trusted the international community to protect him. But nobody did.

Mbaiki is a small town 60 miles south of the capital of Central African Republic, a country of 4.6 million people torn apart by intercommunal violence since early December.

Family here for generations

Dido’s family had lived in Mbaiki for generations, part of a Muslim minority in Central African Republic of about 15 percent. However, his ancestors hailed from Chad to the north — sharing the same roots as the Muslim rebels who overthrew the country’s government in March last year.

Many of these rebels were paid to torture and kill civilians. So when the rebel-backed government fell in January, retaliatory attacks against Muslims escalated. As the threat of carnage grew, thousands of Muslims fled in convoys.

Not Dido. The 46-year-old lanky father of seven still proudly wore his deputy mayor label pin. He vowed to carry on his duties. People started to call him the last Muslim of Mbaiki.

“I was born here; I had my children here,” he said in mid-February. “I have been at the mayor’s office for five years. I took an oath. I am patriotic — why should I leave? I want to live in my country.”

When the French defense minister came to visit Mbaiki, the mayor called Dido “a brother” and promised the community would protect him.

On Feb. 10, Christians who wanted Dido gone looted his store. Dido lectured the mobs that they were stealing not only his things but the future of Central African Republic.

Then the Muslim mayor of another community was killed, and the tension mounted. Dido’s brother-in-law begged him to leave, friends say.

He refused. He even invited a fellow Muslim traveling to the capital to stay at his home.

For the Christians of his community, that was the final straw. The word spread — not only was Dido refusing to leave, he was encouraging other Muslims to come back.

On Feb. 28, a crowd turned up at his home, according to witness accounts.

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