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Africa

Pope heading for violence-prone Central African Republic

Pope Francis will conclude his brief tour of Africa with a challenging trip to the Central African Republic, a poverty stricken country riddled with violence between Muslim rebels and Christian militia.

The Central African Republic descended into inter-religious violence in March 2013 after mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, toppling President Francoise Bozizze and sparking reprisal killings by Christian anti-balaka militia.

Seleka later handed power over to a transitional authority, bowing to heavy international pressure. That authority is still in place, though elections to choose a democatically legitimized government are due on December 27, 2015.

Both Seleka and anti-balaka have committed widespread atrocities. Thousands have been killed in the violence. One in five Central Africans have either left their homes for another part of the country or sought refuge abroad.

In the capital Bangui, a 300-meter (328 yard) stretch of no-man's land marks the entrance to an enclave known as PK5, where most of the Muslims who have not fled or been killed are holed up.

Zentralafrikanische Republik UN Soldaten

Some of MINUSCA's reinforcements should arrive in time for the papal visit

Planned mosque visit

Christian anti-balaka fighters, armed with daggers and grenades, wait by the road scrutinizing the few passing vehicles to ensure that supplies do not get in and no Muslim gets out.

Abdel Aziz Magbadakara, a Bangui iman and Secretary General of the Communuity of Central African Muslims (CICA) told DW the pope's visit 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.

Pope Francis is due to visit Nabi's mosque, which was getting a fresh coat of green paint.

Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), said PK5 had become the fault line of the sectarian violence gripping Bangui. "Pope Francis' visit to Bangui is a critical moment for a senior religious figure to condemn violence by all sides, urge tolerance, and call for those responsible to be brought to justice," he said in an article published on HRW's website on Thursday (26.11.2015).

As well as visiting a mosque, Francis plans to hold a prayer vigil at the cathedral in Bangui and spend some time at a displacement camp.

Central Africans on both sides of the religious divide have rallied behind the papal visit, reducing the risk that his presence could exacerbate communal tensions.

Kenia Papst im Kasarani Stadium

Central African Republic is set to be the third leg of Francis' first African tour after Kenya and Uganda

Lazare Ndjadder, a PK5 resident, told DW the visit had great significance for the enclave and they were "working to increase awareness so that there will be no incidents as the pope passes through."

"We want the pope to bring us peace," said Cynthia Mayo, a Christian in the M'Poko camp for displaced persons.

Ingrid, a student at Bangui University, told DW the pope "will try to bring together the two sides who are currently opposed to one another so the Central African population can live in peace."

Gladys, who works for an NGO in Bangui, told DW she was also expecting messages of peace that would encourage the country's development, but it would be wrong to equate the pope "to a bailout fund."

Concern for the pope's safety

The United Nations currently maintains a peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) in the country with some 9,100 peacekeepers and 1,500 police. An extra 750 troops and 140 police are to be deployed in time for the December 27 elections. African Union forces and a French military mission are also present in Central African Republic.

The UN said earlier this month some of the reinforcements should be in place before the pope's visit.

Nonetheless, a French defense official said Paris had warned the Catholic Church about potential security issues, Reuters reported.

This will Francis' first trip to a conflict zone.

Jeff Murphy Bares in the Central African Republic contributed to this report

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