Message of peace and reconciliation amid unprecedented security measures
Amid unprecedented security, Pope Francis has carried out his intention of visiting the Central African Republic as a “messenger of peace”, even though he had been strongly advised to cancel the visit by France, which has around 900 soldiers deployed in the country. Recent clashes between Christian and Muslim factions in the capital, Bangui, had resulted in over 100 deaths. However, both Christian and Muslim religious leaders are convinced this is not essentially a religious conflict but it is about power and politics which have created a false but very dangerous division between people of different faiths. About 80 % of the impoverished nation’s population is Christian, roughly 15is Muslim and 5% animist.
Pope Francis was protected by the heaviest security ever seen on his overseas visits. 3,000 peacekeepers from the MINUSCA U.N. , French troops and about 500 police and gendarmes deployed by Central African Republic’s government were charged with ensuring his safety. Helicopters patrolled the skies and armoured personnel carriers from French and U.N. peacekeeping forces waited outside the airport as the Pope’s plane landed. The pontiff’s normal security was reinforced by special security forces wearing patches with the yellow and white colours of the Vatican flag. U.N. soldiers armed with rifles rode in each of the minibuses carrying journalists accompanying the pope.
Peace and reconciliation
Shortly after his arrival the Pope met with interim head of state Catherine Samba-Panza who declared: “We absolutely need forgiveness because our hearts have been hardened by the forces of evil. We have lost the sincere love for others and we are henceforth anchored in intolerance, the loss of our values and the disorder that is the result”.
In his homily at a Mass at the city’s cathedral on Sunday, Pope Francis preached “Reconciliation, forgiveness, love, peace”, appealing to warring militias to “lay down these instruments of death” in a nation racked by bloodshed.
While visiting a camp housing some 4,000 people displaced by the violence in Bangui, Pope Francis said “Work, pray, do everything for peace. But remember, peace without love, friendship and tolerance is nothing”.
As the Pope was driven to and from events in a simple car or an open Popemobile, he was met by tens of thousands of cheering people. Turning to the crowd, the Pope asked them all to shout out repeatedly in their native Songo language: “We are all brothers”.
Local start to Holy Year of Mercy
Standing on the cathedral steps on Sunday afternoon, Francis opened a “holy door” at the city’s cathedral for a symbolic local start of the Roman Catholic Church’s jubilee year on the theme of mercy. He proclaimed: “The Holy Year of Mercy is coming early to this land that has been suffering for years from hate, incomprehension and lack of peace”. Addressing the crowd in an impromptu speech, he added “For Bangui, for all the people of the Central African Republic and for all the countries in the world suffering from war, we ask for peace”. The jubilee Year of Mercy starts officially at the Vatican on 8 Dec.
Visit to Grand Mosque
The most dangerous part of the pope’s African trip was his visit on Monday to the Grand Mosque in the notoriously dangerous PK5 Muslim neighbourhood. The PK5 district, where only 15000 Muslims remain, is encircled by Christian militias who have imposed a blockade. Around 100000 Muslims have fled to the far north to escape the violence in Bangui, creating a de facto partition.
Speaking to Muslims who had sought shelter in the district after nearly three years of sectarian violence, Pope Francis told worshippers in the mosque that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters”.
At the final Mass of his Africa trip held in Bangui, Pope Francis spoke in Latin, which was then translated into the local Sango language. His message of reconciliation appeared to have an immediate impact, as a group of Muslim rebels were spotted at the Mass wearing t-shirts with the Pope’s image on them.
The Pope has now left the CAR at the end of his six-day visit to the continent.