Pope says Christians, Muslims are ‘brothers’ in war-torn CAfrican district
On the last leg of a three-nation tour of Africa, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholic visited a flashpoint Muslim neighbourhood in Bangui, where tensions remain high after months of violence on what was the most dangerous part of his 24-hour visit.
Thousands of people gathered at the roadsides, cheering as his popemobile drove down the red dirt roads in a truly festive atmosphere. As his vehicle passed, many waving Vatican flags and dressed in long traditional robes ran down the road after it, an AFP correspondent said.
“Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” he said after meeting Muslim leaders at the central Koudoukou mosque in the PK5 district, the last Muslim enclave in Bangui.
“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,” he said to his mostly-Muslim audience who were sitting on the floor, listening quietly.
Several hundred people packed into the mosque, including a number of people actually living there 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.
– Tight security, relaxed atmosphere –
Francis said his visit to the war-torn nation “would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community,” saying all those who believed in God “must be men and women of peace.”
There were also Catholic and evangelical residents among the crowd, with up to 500 Christians still living in the district.
Perched high on the mosque’s minarets were armed UN peacekeepers from the MINUSCA force, who were keeping a close eye on the crowds below as a helicopter buzzed overhead.
At the edge of the district, armed Muslim rebels stood alert in front of wooden barricades, watching carefully for any threat from Christian vigilante groups.
Despite the tight security, the visit took place in a relaxed atmosphere, an AFP correspondent said.
The 78-year-old pontiff has hammered home a message of peace and reconciliation during his visit to Central African Republic, which will end with a huge mass at the capital’s 20,000-seat Barthelemy Boganda Stadium.
After arriving from Uganda on Sunday, he urged people to avoid “the temptation of fear of others” of a different ethnic group or religion, before visiting a camp housing some 3,000 internally displaced people in the heart of the capital.
His message — and the fact that he actually visited the country despite significant security concerns — struck a chord with locals and drew pledges of peace and forgiveness.
– ‘Ready to forget’ –
“We should eat together, we should live together with Muslims,” said Clarisse Mbai, a mother who lost all her possessions in inter-religious violence.
“They looted everything, they burnt my house and I have nothing but I am ready to forget,” she said.
Nicole Ouabangue, whose husband was hacked to death with an axe, said she had heard many speeches before but the pope’s words were “different”.
“Pope Francis has more influence. If there is anybody who can resolve our problems on Earth, it is him,” she said.
Landlocked Central African Republic descended into bloodshed after longtime Christian leader Francois Bozize was ousted by rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka force in March 2013.
The coup triggered a wave of violence between Muslim rebels and Christian “anti-balaka” militias, plunging the former French colony into its worst crisis since independence in 1960.
On Sunday, Francis opened a “holy door” at Bangui Cathedral, marking the symbolic beginning of a Jubilee Year dedicated to forgiveness and reconciliation. Until now, such a gesture has only ever taken place in the Vatican or in Rome.