Former French colony was a dangerous place for the Pope to visit, but he was determined to bring a message of hope and peace
By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – CAR – (ANS – November 29, 2015) –Pope Francis, speaking during Mass in the Central African Republic (CAR) capital Bangui, has called on fighting factions to lay down their weapons.
Instead, he said, they should arm themselves “with justice, love, mercy and authentic peace.”
“Earlier he said he hoped next month’s polls in the CAR would open a “new chapter” for the country,” said the BBC. “CAR has been torn apart by violence between Muslim rebels and Christian militias.
“It is the pontiff’s first visit to a conflict zone and the final stop on his landmark three-nation African tour.”
Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza has asked him for “forgiveness” for the country’s recent religious violence.
The BBC report said that large crowds lined the road from the airport to welcome the Pope – and people cheered and sang when he arrived at a refugee camp.
In an address at the presidential palace, he called for unity and to avoid “the temptation of fear of others, of the unfamiliar, of what is not part of our ethnic group, our political views or our religious confession.”
The Pope said ahead of his trip he was determined to bring a message of peace and hope to the country.
At the scene: Caroline Wyatt, the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, said: “Rarely has a Pope landed somewhere with armored vehicles on the tarmac and a refugee camp full of displaced people within sight. Many in Bangui had worried that the Pope might cancel his visit, after fears that his security could not be guaranteed.
“This visit to a conflict zone is not only a first for a Pope, but also a crucial signal from the outside world to the people of this troubled nation that such a leader has come to bring a message of peace.
“Pope Francis’s arrival in the Central African Republic has delighted the people who lined the streets to see him. Signs welcoming ‘Pape Francois’ were everywhere in the capital of this French-speaking country, and the excitement was palpable.”
She added, “One woman hoping for a glimpse of the Pope expressed her joy after his plane landed, saying his visit here brought real hope in dark times.”
Can Pope tackle religious divide in Central African Republic?
Alastair Leithead of BBC News, reporting from Bangui, said of the violent situation, “When Pope Francis put the Central African Republic on his itinerary, he gave his Vatican security officers a major challenge.
“It’s no longer full-blown civil war, but it’s a country divided – on the surface at least – along religious grounds.
“Every day gunfire and grenades ring out across the capital and countrywide, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes into enclaves that are either Christian or Muslim.
“It’s a risky place for a Pope to come, but of the three countries on his African adventure, the CAR has perhaps the most to gain from a symbolic visit.”
The Pope had previously visited Kenya and Uganda on his three-country African visit, but this was by far the most dangerous, but that’s something that this pontiff was willing to risk to try and bring healing between the warring religious groups.
Leithead said that “for the past week, the Vatican police have been poring over the arrangements, checking out the venues he’ll visit and making sure it’s as safe as it can be for the pontiff.
“The UN has a peacekeeping force here, and French troops have an even heavier hand in trying to impose peace, complete with tanks and armored cars, rumbling around the capital.”
General Bala Keita, acting force commander of the UN mission, said, “We are quite comfortable. We will never ensure we can secure the Pope 100%, but I think the level of security we have put on the ground is acceptable for the Pope to come and visit without a lot of hitches.”
Leithead went on to say, “If the aim is to bring all sides together, Pope Francis has achieved that simply through the planning process.”
fAt the Grand Mosque in the notoriously dangerous PK5 neighbourhood, a large group of Vatican police, all wearing pale blue polo shirts, talked with the Bishop, the Imam and the Papal Nuncio, or Pope’s ambassador to the CAR.
“The religious leaders don’t need convincing – they all have the same message – this is not a religious conflict, but about power and politics which have created a false but very dangerous division,” said Leithead.
“That doesn’t stop the attacks, and nor did it prevent a gun battle from breaking out just outside the mosque as discussions about the Pope’s security arrangements were coming to a close.
At the cathedral, wooden platforms were being hastily built outside, the wooden roof was being repainted by a man balanced on precarious scaffolding, and the priest was walking the clergy through the service, step by step.”
Archbishop Franco Coppola, the Nuncio in Bangui, revealed that “the Pope said he wanted to come here as he was very worried about the situation. He wanted to come in the first place to comfort those who have been in any way wounded or affected by the war and to encourage the efforts on the road towards peace and reconciliation.”
About Central African Republic (BBC):
* Population: 4.6 million – 50% Christian, 15% Muslim, 35% Indigenous beliefs
* Years of conflict and misgovernanceConflict only recently along religious lines
* Previously ruled by Emperor Jean-Bedel BokassaRich in diamonds
* 10,000-strong UN force took over a peacekeeping mission in September 2014
* France has about 2,000 troops in its ex-colony, first deployed in December 2013
Photo captions: 1) Pope Francis urged people in CAR tof embrace peace and tolerance (EPA). 2) Pope Francis was greeted with loud cheers at a refugee camp in Bangui. 3) Religious violence in the country. 4) Eland armored car of the Central African Multinational Force patrols the streets of Bangui. 5) Hundreds have sought refugee near Bangui’s main airport (AFP). 6) Dan Wooding speaking some years ago at an open air service in Kenya.
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About the writer: Dan Wooding, 74, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the author of some 45 books and has two TV programs and one radio show in Southern California. He has reported from all over Africa for ANS.
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