Security tight as Pope visits conflict zone to preach peace
Pope Francis touched down in war-torn Central African Republic yesterday flanked by bodyguards in flak vests and machine-gun-toting UN peacekeepers, to bring a message of peace and reconciliation.
Christian-Muslim violence has divided the capital Bangui and forced nearly one million people to flee their homes.
Schoolgirls dressed in the yellow and white of the Holy See flag and women dressed in traditional African fabric emblazoned with the Pope's face joined dignitaries to welcome Francis at Bangui airport amid tight security.
As Francis emerged, a huge cheer broke out from the crowd and the cheers continued along his motorcade route - some 5km of which he travelled 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 said at the St Sauveur church camp. Francis then led them in a chant: "We are all brothers. We are all brothers."
"And because we are brothers, we want peace," he said.
Yesterday'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 neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. Today the capital that once had 122,000 Muslims has only around 15,000, according to Human Rights Watch.
While ecstatic crowds celebrated the pope's visit and message of reconciliation, thousands of Muslims remained essentially blockaded in their neighbourhood 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 volatile neighbourhood today to meet with the local imam and Muslims in the mosque before celebrating a final Mass and returning to Rome.
The precarious security in Bangui raised the possibility in recent weeks that the pope could cancel his visit or at least trim it back.
While sectarian clashes have left at least 100 people dead over the last two months, in recent days Bangui has been relatively free of gunfire.
Welcoming Francis at the presidential palace, President Catherine Samba-Panza thanked him for his "lesson in courage" in overcoming security concerns to make the trip, saying his presence showed the "victory of faith over fear".
She said she hoped Francis's visit would result in the "demons of division, hatred and self-destruction being exorcised and chased forever from our land."
The Pope said he hoped elections scheduled for next month would enable the conflict-torn country to "serenely begin a new phase of its history.