Muslims in Central African Republic want their own country, with sharia

Women prepare food next to their belongings near Kilometre 12 where internally displaced Muslims are stranded due to the ongoing sectarian violence in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui March 19, 2014

The ousted government of Central African Republic is seeking international support for an independent Muslim nation, African officials said, an unlikely bid that nevertheless risks widening a violent religious divide with the country’s Christians.

The country’s first and only Muslim president, Michel Djotodia is spearheading the separatist initiative, said a recently resigned official in his government, a Nigerian presidential adviser and official memos reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Djotodia, a former rebel commander who led the country for nine months last year, resigned in January, amid international pressure to hand power to a transitional government.

Since then, his envoys have traveled throughout Africa to drum up support for a new Muslim country carved from the republic’s northeastern rump.

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Anti-balaka fighters from the town of Bossembele patrol in the Boeing district of Bangui, Central African Republic, February 24, 2014

The proposal comes at a pivotal point in the 54-year history of a former French colony that until recently appeared, from the outside, to be a model of interreligious harmony. That veneer shattered when Mr. Djotodia marched into the capital Bangui last year, at the helm of a rebel army of Muslims citing generations of discrimination by successive Christian governments.

Since then, religious and ethnic warfare has intensified.

Thousands of Muslims have been killed in recent weeks, said Human Rights Watch, many of their bodies mutilated by Christian mobs. Many more have fled the country. Mr. Djotodia cites that violent dislocation in a memo that calls for a new nation called Dar el kouti.

“The disaster they have suffered could be compared to the one provoked by the Indonesian tsunami,” he wrote.

Muslim residents in Kaga Bandoro, flee towards Chad escorted by armed Seleka militias

Regardless of its prospects for success, the initiative risks complicating a humanitarian disaster.

A quarter of the Central African Republic’s 4.5 million people have been displaced. French peacekeepers have escorted Muslim groups in convoys to safety in neighboring Chad and Cameroon. In February, the U.N. said at least 15,000 Muslims had been surrounded in their homes by Christian mobs who are blocking their exit because they want to kill them. It isn’t clear how many made it to safety in the weeks since.

Mr. Djotodia, exiled in Benin, and his press secretary didn’t return emails seeking comment on his statehood proposal. Mr. Djotodia also couldn’t be reached on his several cellphone numbers.

Officials in Europe and Africa say they worry his calls for statehood along a fault line of Muslim-Christian conflict will inspire extremists. In several parts of Africa, from the coast of Kenya to the desert sands of northern Mali, fundamentalists have found common cause with religious and ethnic minorities seeking to create new nations.

Analysts said the international community is unlikely to rally around Mr. Djotodia’s proposal to detach a separate Islamic state from an already chaotic country.

“It is an extremely dangerous idea,” said David Zounmenou, senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, of Mr. Djotodia’s proposal.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Washington “would strongly oppose any partition of the country.” That echoes similar comments by President François Hollande of France, the country that colonized Central African Republic and leads peacekeeping efforts there. One Nigerian official called the idea “a Pandora’s box.”

Mr. Djotodia’s diplomatic campaign is rooted in earlier attempts to rally support among Muslim groups. In a 2012 letter seeking funds from the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Saudi Arabia, seen by The Wall Street Journal, he wrote: “We’re going to transform a part of Central African Republic…into an Islamic republic.”

“We’re going to put in place an Islamic regime that will apply Shariah,” he wrote, referring to law based on the Quran.