Pope Francis has spoken in a mosque in one of the most volatile neighborhoods in Central African Republic. The country has experienced two years of almost non-stop religious violence.
On the last day of his much-awaited visit to Africa, Pope Francis visited a mosque in Bangui, the capital of one of the world's most unstable nations, the Central African Republic.
Francis spoke at the mosque in the city's restive PK5 neighborhood on Monday, an area marked by the volatile relations between Christians and Muslims that are responsible in large part for the two years of ongoing strife in the country.
The Muslims who live in PK5 have been unable to leave the area for months, as heavily armed Christian militias maintain a perimeter around it. The pope had insisted on visiting the neighborhood despite the danger, and was flanked by a heavy security presence throughout his visit.
As the pontiff passed through what had one day before been a no-man's land separating Bangui's Muslim population from the rest of the city, PK5 suddenly took on a more hopeful appearance, with thousands crowding to see Francis and calling out "War is over!"
Francis took off his shoes and sat on a sofa while speaking, in comments directed to the chief imam of the mosque, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, who thanked the pope for his visit.
'Brothers and sisters'
"Christians and Muslims and members of traditional religions have lived peacefully for many years. Together, we say no to hatred, to vengeance and violence, especially that committed in the name of a religion or God," said the Bishop of Rome, who has made interreligious dialogue a hallmark of his papacy, adding that anyone carrying out atrocities was not a person of faith.
"Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters," said Francis. "Yes, I confirm, Christians and Muslims of this country are condemned to live together and love one another."
After his speech, he and Naibi observed a moment of silence in front of the mihrab, which shows worshipers the direction of Mecca, the holiest city in the Islamic religion.
Conflict erupted in Central African Republic in 2013 when a group of Muslim insurgents overthrew the Christian president. The brutal reign of the coup leaders lasted only a year, and a violent backlash against Muslim civilians swiftly ensued, with mobs attacking them in the streets, sometimes decapitating and dismembering them.
Thousands of the country's Muslims, who make up around 15 percent of the population, fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. The once vibrant storefronts of PK5 are empty and many Muslim-owned business have been reduced to rubble.
The Catholic Church, to which about 37 percent of the country's inhabitants belong, played a key role in protecting Muslims from violence at the height of the conflict last year, sheltering people in churches in remote areas of the country.
es/tj (AP, dpa)