BANGUI (Reuters) Protected by the heaviest security ever seen on his trips, Pope Francis on Sunday (Nov. 29) preached reconciliation in the divided Central African Republic, a nation racked by bloodshed between Muslims and Christians.
As the pope‘s Alitalia plane touched down from Uganda to start his first visit to a war zone, attack helicopters patrolled the skies and armoured personnel carriers from French and U.N. peacekeeping forces waited outside the airport.
Special security forces wearing patches of the yellow and white colours of the Vatican flag were on hand to help his normal Vatican security retinue.
In an unprecedented precaution for papal trips, a U.N. soldier armed with a rifle rode in each of the mini-buses carrying reporters accompanying the pope.
Bangui, the capital of the former French colony, has seen a surge in clashes that have left at least 100 people dead since late September, according to Human Rights Watch.
France, which has around 900 soldiers deployed in the country, warned the Vatican this month that the visit could be risky but the pope was determined to go to the majority Christian nation.
Francis was driven in to the presidential palace, for much of the way in an open popemobile, and then to a camp housing nearly 4,000 people displaced by the violence.
“Work, pray, do everything for peace,” he said at the camp. “But remember, peace without love, friendship and tolerance is nothing. I hope that all Central Africans can see peace,” he said.
Before being mobbed by the crowd, he asked them all to shout out repeatedly in their native Songo language: “We are all brothers”.
Tens of thousands of cheering people lined the route of his motorcade into the city and the presidential palace for a meeting with interim head of state Catherine Samba-Panza.
“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,” she told the pope.
“We await your messages to free us from our fear of each other, to help us end our conflicts, to change our hearts and put us on the path to serenity, wisdom, brotherhood and peace,” she said.
Speaking slowly in French, he appealed for a “unity in diversity” that shuns divisions along political or religious lines.
Later on Sunday, he was due to celebrate Mass at the city’s cathedral, scene of an attack last year by Islamist militants that left 15 people dead among those who had sought refuge inside from violence in the city.
France sent in soldiers in 2013 in an attempt to stem the bloodshed. Muslims and Christians have since split into segregated communities. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled to the far north, creating a de facto partition.
About 80 percent of the impoverished country’s population is Christian, 15 percent is Muslim and 5 percent animist.
Central African Republic’s government is deploying around 500 police and gendarmes to secure the visit. More than 3,000 peacekeepers from the MINUSCA U.N. mission will also be deployed and French troops will be on alert as well.
Bangui is the final leg of his first African trip that has already taken him to Kenya and Uganda.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella, Joe Bavier and Crispin Dembassa-Kette.)