Thursday 22 August 2019

Pope takes peace message to warring factions in Central African Republic

Pope Francis waves to the crowd during his visit to the Central Mosque in Bangui's Muslim enclave of PK5 in the Central African Republic (AP)
Pope Francis waves to the crowd during his visit to the Central Mosque in Bangui's Muslim enclave of PK5 in the Central African Republic (AP)
Pope Francis stops in prayer before opening the holy door of the Bangui cathedral (AP)

Pope Francis delivered a message of peace and reconciliation at a mosque when he ventured into a volatile Muslim area of Central African Republic's capital.

He said Christians and Muslims have long lived peacefully together in the Bangui area and insisted that religion can never justify violence.

Under heavy security, Francis crossed into the PK5 neighbourhood where Muslims have been under siege for months because of the armed Christian militia fighters who surround its perimeter.

The pope travelled in his open-air vehicle despite the security risks though armed UN peacekeepers stood guard in the minarets of the mosque.

About 200 men seated inside the mosque welcomed Francis, who sat on a sofa. In comments to the chief imam, Francis insisted that Muslims and Christians are brothers and must behave as such.

"Christians and Muslims and members of traditional religions have lived peacefully for many years," he said. "Together, we say no to hatred, to vengeance and violence, especially that committed in the name of a religion or God."

The chief imam at the mosque, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, thanked Francis for his visit, which he said was "a symbol which we all understand".

Francis removed his shoes, bowed his head and stood silently at the mihrab, or area of the mosque that faces the holy Muslim city of Mecca.

The pope's visit immediately ushered in a greater sense of freedom to the beleaguered area. In what had been a no-man's land separating the Muslim enclave from the rest of the city only the day before, thousands crossed over into the area chanting "war is over" in the local Sango language after the pope's departure.

Francis had insisted on coming to the PK5 area to appeal for peace in a country where two years of Christian-Muslim violence has divided the capital and forced nearly one million people to flee their homes. The once vibrant markets of PK5 have now been largely shuttered and many of the Muslim-owned businesses stand in ruins.

The pope's visit to the mosque marked the highlight of his three-nation African tour, with previous stops in Kenya and Uganda. He has a final Mass in Bangui's sports stadium later today before returning to Rome.

Central African Republic descended into conflict in 2013 when Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president. That ushered in a brutal reign. When the rebel leader left power the following year, a swift and horrific backlash against Muslim civilians ensued.

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 to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. Today, the capital that once had 122,000 Muslims has only around 15,000, according to Human Rights Watch.

Francis urged the international community to not view the country as doomed to a cycle of violence, saying the current conflict is a moment in time - "a painful moment, a regrettable moment, but just a moment.

"Yes, I confirm, Christians and Muslims of this country are condemned to live together and love one another," he said.

Francis reminded the Muslims in the central mosque that the origins of the conflict was not religious and urged them to put their own interests aside.

"We must remain united to prevent any action from either side that disfigures the face of God or has at its base the goal of defending particular interests at the expense of the common good," he said.

PA Media

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