Central African Republic Visit Puts Pope on War's Fault Line

  • Pontiff scheduled to visit mosque in capital's Muslim enclave
  • Nation's Christian, Muslim militias have fought since 2013

When the leader of the world’s Catholics visits a mosque in the Central African Republic on Monday, he’ll be crossing the fault line of a nation that’s been wracked by more than two years of sectarian violence.

The last leg of Pope Francis’ three-nation African tour takes him to a country where thousands of people have been killed since 2013 as fighting has raged between Muslim and Christian militias. He arrived in Bangui, the capital, on Sunday and is due to speak the following day at a mosque in Kilometer 5, a Muslim enclave also known as PK5 where as many as 100 people have been killed in an uptick in violence over the past two months.

“The pope is going to CAR to encourage dialogue and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims,” said Thierry Vircoulon, Central African Republic project director for the International Crisis Group. “Since 2014, PK5 is the symbol of this fighting, so a message of peace delivered in PK5 is essential.”

The nation has been gripped by violence since mainly Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize in March 2013, an ousting marked by the widespread killing of civilians. Christians set up a rival militia, the anti-balaka, which has committed similar atrocities. Almost 1 million people have fled their homes because of the violence.

MAP: Central African Republic

The army has disintegrated, while armed groups have partitioned the nation of 5 million people and battle to control the gold and diamond trade. The country was ranked the world’s 10th-biggest diamond producer by value in 2012, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“I appeal to all sons and daughters of this country to unite and to make peace,” Pope Francis told government officials and civil society leaders gathered at the presidential palace in Bangui on Sunday.

He traveled afterward to a site in the city where people displaced by fighting are sheltering, and urged them to “surpass the conditions you’re living in at the moment.”

“Always keep in mind love and forgiveness, because that is how your country and yourselves will bring back peace,” the 78-year-old pope said.

Recent sectarian violence in Bangui, sparked by the killing of a Muslim taxi driver, is the worst bloodshed in the city since early 2014. The United Nations has more than 10,000 soldiers and police in the country, while former colonial ruler France deployed 1,200 troops last year.

Symbolic Visit

“This visit is a critical moment for a senior religious figure to condemn the violence by all sides, urge tolerance, and call for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Lewis Mudge, country researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Pope Francis’ arrival in Central African Republic follows visits to Kenya and Uganda that began Nov. 25 and comprise his first official trip to Africa since his papacy began almost three years ago. As well as meeting officials and those displaced by violence, he’s scheduled to hold a mass in the national stadium before leaving the country on Monday. Last week, religious leaders from all denominations in Bangui called for a cease-fire before his visit.

“The visit of the pope to our country gives us hope that the population will live together in peace and reject the spirit of division and hate,” interim President Catherine Samba-Panza said on Sunday.

Central African Republic is the most symbolic part of the entire papal trip, with the mosque visit key to a message of interfaith reconciliation, according to Vircoulon.

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