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C. Africa's Nzapalainga, much more than an archbishop

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Dieudonne Nzapalainga's debonair manner conceals a tough-minded streak and, at 46, Bangui's archbishop has emerged as a key player in efforts to end the crisis in the Central African Republic.

Combined with his charisma, his position as the head of the only functioning institution with a nationwide foothold in a country where the government's authority barely extends beyond the capital, has bestowed him with formidable power.

Born on March 14, 1967 in Bangassou, 475 kilometres (295 miles) east of the capital Bangui, to a Roman Catholic father and a Protestant mother of modest means, Nzapalainga was appointed archbishop in May 2012.

Renowned as a first-rate orator, the archbishop was very vocal at condemning sectarian strife that erupted in the impoverished former French colony in the wake of a coup in March by mostly Muslim rebels.

The Catholic Church has long considered the Central African Republic (CAR) to be an undisputed stronghold in the region. The population is 80 percent Christian and the clergy has traditionally played an important role in public life.

Michel Djotodia came to power as the nation's first Muslim president in April, helped by former Seleka rebels. He later dissolved the group amid ongoing chaos and looting.

The rebels went rogue, setting up mini fiefdoms across the country where they have clashed with vigilante groups who have started targeting Muslims, often in retaliation for the desecration of Christian property.

The archbishop was swift to denounce "incitement to religious hatred", a Western diplomat based in Bangui said.

Nzapalainga now spends much of his time criss-crossing the vast landlocked country with the nation's Muslim spiritual leader, Imam Omar Kabine Layama.

Their message is that "this is not a sectarian conflict" but one that has been imported by armed gangs from neighbouring Sudan and Chad.

"We explained to all faithful that weapons do not resolve anything. We need to put an end to the violence and talk through existing problems," Nzapalainga said in a recent interview with the Vatican Insider.

The prelate has also urged politicians to "become more involved" in finding a solution to the continuing unrest.

With the international community expressing growing concern that spiralling chaos could turn the country into a Somali-style failed state, Nzapalainga's charm and style have earned him many fans.

'One of the most powerful men in the country'

Described as a charismatic figure, Nzapalainga is also a "respected" leader, according to one diplomat, while a senior officer from the small African peacekeeping force deployed in the country praised his "efficiency".

The CAR's army is scarcely noted for its discipline, yet soldiers immediately come to attention and salute the archbishop when he goes past. Few members of the government command such allegiance.

"Because of his role, he is one of the most powerful men in the country," a diplomat said.

During the nation's history of coups d'etat, "imperial" misrule and rebellions, the state's administrative fabric vanished across large tracts of the country.

Today, with its dioceses, parishes, schools, medical dispensaries and its humanitarian arm, Caritas, the Church is the only working institution with a national reach, with trained and paid personnel.

Where the machinery of state is lacking, the archbishop has become the de facto ruler in the nation of 4.6 million people.

Nzapalainga first proved his credentials in 2008 when -- still a young and humble priest freshly back in the CAR after eight years in France -- he was appointed as an apostolic administrator, or temporary manager, during a crisis in the country's Church.

Pope Benedict XVI was reportedly outraged by the some of the practices in the Central African clergy, including polygamy, and sent a special commission to clean things up.

The archbishop of the time, Paulin Pomodino, was swiftly dismissed and 40 priests were also defrocked.

Nzapalainga, then only 42, was tasked with finishing the work of the commission. Only three years later, he was made archbishop.

Nzapalainga was "a very intelligent pupil", said Father Juan Jose Aguirre, a Spanish priest who has lived in the CAR for 34 years and taught the future archbishop in Bangassou.

He added that his student possessed another quality: "His speech had authority. He spoke with a special intensity."

Nzapalainga uses that gift in French, but above all in Sango, the language of the people, and authority wed to the power of words goes a long way in Africa.

Could the archbishop be tempted by politics in a time of crisis, as has happened in other countries on the continent? A source close to him replies with a smile: "Earthly power, he practises it every day."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131014/c-africas-nzapalainga-much-more-archbishop