Pope Francis has wrapped up his first ever trip to Africa by calling for reconciliation in the Central African Republic, which has been wracked for more than two years by violence between Christian and Muslims.
"God is great" the jubiliant crowds called out in Arabic to Pope Francis as he drove by in his Popemobile. Francis was on his way to the Koudoukou mosque in PK 5, the Muslim enclave in Bangui, capital of Central African Republic. This was the climax of his six-day tour of Africa, which also took him to Uganda and Kenya.
The mood in Bangui during the papal visit was upbeat, but security was tight. The capital's Muslims have been unable to leave PK5 for months because armed Christian militia fighters have surrounded its perimeter.
But on Monday (30.11.2015) Francis sought to promote reconciliation between the two faiths. Seated inside the mosque, he said Christians and Muslims were brothers and should behave as such. "Together, we say no to hatred, to vengeance and violence, especially that committed in the name of a religion or God."
The Pontiff concluded his remarks with "Salaam" meaning God is peace. It was a gesture appreciated by Bangui's Muslims.
Abdel Aziz Magbadakara, a Bangui iman and Secretary General of the Communuity of Central African Muslims (CICA) told DW ahead of the visit that the pope's presence would contribute to social cohesion in the capital and could bring about reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.
"The message to the two communities in Central African Republic is that we should silence our quarrels in order to welcome our guest," he said.
Those quarrels have the dimensions of a civil war. Central African Republic was plunged into violence in March 2013 when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels toppled Christian President Francoise Bozizze. That ushered in a brutal reign. When the rebel leader Michel Djotodia left power the following year, anti-balaka Christian militia launched a swift and horrific backlash against Muslim civilians. Before the violence 120,000 Muslims lived in Bangui, now there are just 15,000.
Bangui mass highlight for Catholics
There was always a question mark hanging over the Pope's visit to Central African Republic because of the precarious security situation. An extra 3,000 UN blue helmets and 100 troops from French special forces were deployed to Bangui to ensure the Pope's safety. Yet in spite of concern for his security, the Pope made most of the journey from Bangui airport to the presidential palace for a meeting with interim president Catherin Samba Panza in his open-sided Popemobile.
During a mass at Bangui Cathedral on Sunday evening Francis opened a "holy door," marking the beginning of a Jubilee year dedicated to forgiveness and reconciliation.
In his sermon, Francis appealed to all fighters to lay down their weapons and urged the nation's youth to "always forgive, never hate."
Pope Francis with interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. Elections in CAR have been postponed until the end of December
According to the rights group Amnesty International, thousands of Central Africans have been killed in the violence over the last two years. Just a few week ago, renewed clashes left 80 people dead and 400 injured. Parliamentary and presidential elections, originally scheduled for mid-October have been put back until December 27, 2015 because of friction between religious and ethnic groups. It is still uncertain whether they will take place on that date. However, shortly before the Pope arrived all presidential candidates met together for the first time. The meeting in itself was seen as a glimmer of hope for the country.
On Sunday the Pope visited the Saint Saveur refugee camp, which houses 3,700 internally displaced persons. "The conditions here are appalling. Many of the refugees have nothing to eat," camp coordinator Maurice Nguenda told DW. But he said the Pope's visit had boosted his confidence. "We are prepared to work towards reconciliation with our [Muslim] brothers," he said.
Despite the optimism, some believe the Pope's visit will turn out to have been little more than a symbolic gesture. "The Pope can't automatically spread peace wherever he goes," said Ali, a young trader in PK5.
Francis arrived in Central African Republic after paying visits to Uganda and Kenya where hundreds of thousands joined him in celebrating mass. At the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi he warned of the dangers of letting Paris climate conference fail. It would be catastrophic if particular interests were to prevail over the common good, he said.
Hippolyte Marboua and Jeff Murphy Bares contributed to this report