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Pope calls for peace between Christians and Muslims in CAR

Pope Francis has appealed for warring factions in the Central African Republic to lay down their weapons. The country's sectarian conflict has killed thousands and displaced more than 1 million.

Pope Francis on Sunday called for an end to violence between Christian and Muslim militants during a mass attended by thousands of people at Bangui Cathedral.

"To all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world, I make this appeal: lay down these instruments of death! Arm yourselves instead with righteousness, with love and mercy," the pontiff said.

The Central African Republic is the pope's final stop on his three-nation tour of Africa. Security was tight for the visit, with attack helicopters patrolling above, and UN peacekeepers escorting the papal convoy.

Thousands of people have been killed and about a quarter of CAR's 4.7 million people displaced since Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president, Francois Bozize, in 2013. The former French colony has since descended into bloodshed, with ongoing clashes between the mostly Muslim Seleka fighters and Christian militias.

Papst Franziskus in Bangui Zentralafrika im Flüchtlingscamp von Saint Sauveur

The pope kisses a child at a camp for displaced people in Bangui

'Pilgrim of peace'

Before celebrating mass, the pope opened a "holy door" at Bangui's cathedral for a symbolic local start of the Catholic Church's jubilee year, dedicated to mercy and reconciliation. Until now, such a gesture has only ever taken place in Vatican or in Rome.

"For all the people of the Central African Republic and for all the countries in the world suffering from war, we ask for peace," Francis said on the cathedral steps.

Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza asked the pope for "forgiveness from the bottom of my heart" for the "evil" wave of sectarian violence in the country.

In response, Francis told her he came as a "pilgrim of peace, an apostle of hope," seeking to encourage reconciliation and disarmament. He also said he hoped elections scheduled for next month would allow the war-torn country to enter a "new chapter."

Last stop

The pope also visited a camp for thousands of Christians displaced by inter-religious violence. On Monday, he's expected to meet members of the Muslim community and visit a mosque in Bangui's PK5 neighborhood, which is currently blockaded by Christian militias. Later he will celebrate a final mass before returning to Rome.

The pope began his landmark Africa trip in Kenya on Wednesday. On Friday, he traveled to Uganda, before arriving in CAR on Saturday.

Africa is home to an estimated 180 million Catholics, and their numbers are growing faster than anywhere else in the world. In CAR, about 80 percent of the country's population is Christian, roughly 15 percent is Muslim and 5 percent animist.

nm/ (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

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