Nicole Winfield ?and Krista Larson
BANGUI, Central African Republic: Flanked by Vatican bodyguards in flak jackets and machine-gun-toting U.N. peacekeepers, Pope Francis plunged Sunday into conflict-wracked Central African Republic and urged the country’s Christian and Muslim factions to lay down their weapons and instead arm themselves with peace and forgiveness.
Francis issued the appeal from the altar of Bangui’s cathedral after arriving in the badly-divided capital on the final leg of his three-nation African tour.
Schoolgirls dressed in the yellow and white of the Holy See flag and women wearing traditional African fabric dresses emblazoned with the pope’s face joined government and church authorities to welcome Francis at Bangui airport amid tight security.
Cheering crowds lined his motorcade route — about three miles of it in his open-sided popemobile. The crowds swelled again at a displacement camp, where children sang him songs of welcome and held up hand-made signs saying “Peace,” “Love” and “Unity.”
“My wish for you, and for all Central Africans, is peace,” Francis told the nearly 4,000 residents in the St. Sauveur church camp. With the help of a Sango translator, he then led them in a chant: “We are all brothers. We are all brothers.”
Sunday’s visit was a rare moment of jubilation in Central African Republic, where Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president in early 2013, ushering in a brutal reign that led to a swift and horrific backlash against Muslim civilians when the rebel leader left power the following year.
Throughout the early months of 2014, mobs attacked Muslims in the streets, even decapitating and dismembering them and setting their corpses ablaze. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians fled for their lives to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Today, the capital that once had 122,000 Muslims has only around 15,000, according to Human Rights Watch. Overall, 1 million people in a country of 4.8 million have been forced from their homes.
While ecstatic crowds celebrated the pope’s visit and message of reconciliation, thousands of Muslims remained essentially blockaded in their neighborhood of PK5, unable to leave because of the armed Christian militia fighters called the anti-Balaka who surround its perimeter.
Francis plans to enter this highly volatile neighborhood on Monday morning to meet with the local imam and Muslims in the mosque before returning to Rome.
Welcoming Francis at the presidential palace, President Catherine Samba-Panza thanked him for his “lesson in courage” in simply coming, saying his presence showed the “victory of faith over fear.”