Pope Francis has taken the biggest security risk of his papacy to visit a mosque under siege from armed Christian militias in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, delivering a message of peace and reconciliation in a show of solidarity.
Under heavy UN and Vatican protection, Pope Francis travelled in his open popemobile into the heart of PK5, where 15 000 Muslims are surrounded by Christian militias. Before the civil war erupted in March 2013, the Muslim population of the capital was about 122 000 but most have fled. Thousands of people gathered at the roadside, cheering as the papal entourage drove down red dirt roads.
The 26-hour visit to Bangui was the first time the pope has visited an active war zone. CAR has been embroiled in civil war since President François Bozizé was ousted in a coup by Muslim rebels.
Pope Francis arrives at the Koudoukou mosque in Bangui.
After removing his shoes on entering the Koudoukou mosque and bowing towards the holy Muslim city of Mecca, the pope told several hundred men inside that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters”.
“Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself. God is peace. Salaam,” he added, using the Arabic word for peace.
Pope Francis said his visit to CAR “would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community”.
The chief imam at the mosque, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, thanked the Pope for his visit, which he said was “a symbol which we all understand”.
Some Muslims are living in the mosque after being forced out of their homes by the violence. “We are very proud to welcome him. The pope is not only for the Christians, he is a servant of God for all Central Africans,” said Ibrahim Paulin, a spokesman for the displaced.
Armed UN peacekeepers were positioned on the mosque’s minarets and a helicopter hovered overhead. At the edge of the district, armed Muslim rebels stood in front of wooden barricades, watching for any threat from Christian vigilante groups.
The visit came towards the end of the pope’s six-day Africa tour, which included visits to Kenya and Uganda. After celebrating mass in a sports stadium, Francis departed for Rome.
Pope Francis in the mostly Muslim PK5 neighbourhood of the Bangui.
A group of Muslim rebels joined thousands of people at the mass at the Barthelemy Boganda stadium. Two pickup trucks pulled up in the middle of the crowd shortly before the pope’s arrival and a group of Muslim vigilantes from PK5 leapt out, wearing T-shirts bearing the pope’s image, as people cheered and – referring to the conflict – shouted “it’s over”.
UN troops, Central African police, Vatican security and volunteer scouts patrolled outside and inside the 20,000-seat stadium. “I am happy to be doing this,” said David, a 20-year-old scout. — The Guardian.