Pope Francis visits conflict zone CAR seeking ‘new chapter’

Pope Francis ends his Africa tour with Central African Republic in hopes for country to find unity, begin ‘new chapter’

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Pope Francis meets with children as he visits a refugee camp after arriving in Bangui on November 29, 2015

Pope Francis arrived to the capital city of Central African Republic (CAR) on Sunday, marking his first conflict zone visit and the last step of his Africa tour, under the heaviest of security measures to deliver a message of reconciliation with regards to the ongoing religious violence in the country and call for peace and unity.

As the pope's Alitalia plane touched down from Uganda, CAR's government deployed around 500 police officers to secure the visit with armed helicopters patrolling the skies.

More than 3,000 peacekeepers from the MINUSCA UN mission will also be deployed along with French troops.

In addition, special security forces wearing patches with yellow and white colours of the Vatican flag were available to assist his normal Vatican security entourage.

UN soldiers armed with rifles rode in each of the mini-buses transporting reporters accompanying the pope, in an exceptional precaution for papal trips.

MINUSCA'S force commander, General Bala Keita, stated that the mission aimed to block any potential attacks or insecurities among the city's armed groups.

"We have brought banditry and attacks on civilians to the lowest level possible, but Bangui is not secure. That's a fact," Keita said.

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he arrives at St. Saviour parish to visit a internally displaced people camp in Bangui on November 29, 2015.

The capital city of Bangui has witnessed an increased amount of clashes between religious groups that have left more than 100 people dead since late September, according to Human Rights Watch.

France had previously warned the Pope that his visit to CAR would be too risky, emphasising that French authorities had deployed 900 soldiers in 2013 into the country in an attempt to end the ongoing turmoil.

However, the Pope made his intentions clear as he stated, "I wish with all my heart that my visit can contribute ... to dressing the wounds and opening the way to a more serene future for Central African Republic and all its inhabitants."

Tens of thousands of people welcomed the Pope from the airport into the city, and all the way to the presidential palace where the Pope had scheduled a meeting with the transitional head of state and diplomats.

In an address at the presidential palace, he called for unity and for everyone to refrain from "the temptation of fear of others, of the unfamiliar, of what is not part of our ethnic group, our political views or our religious confession".

Pope Francis (C) and interim leader of the Central African Republic, Catherine Samba Panza (R) arrive at the State House in Bangui on November 29, 2015.

Later on the same day, Pope Francis is expected to visit a refugee camp and celebrate Mass at the city's cathedral, in which an attack took place last year that left 15 people dead.

And he is also expected to speak with Muslim leaders and visit a mosque in the city's Muslim enclave, known as PK5.

Since 2013, Muslims and Christians have been separated into segregated communities, where tens of thousands of Muslims fled north, establishing a de facto zone.

TRTWorld and agencies