ROME — Just three weeks before his scheduled visit to the Central African Republic — the first time a pontiff would set foot in an active war zone — Pope Francis on Sunday called for an end to the bloodshed currently tearing the small nation of 4.5 million apart.
Francis is scheduled to be in the Central African Republic Nov. 28-29, part of a three-nation African swing that will also take him to Kenya and Uganda.
On Sunday, Francis appeared to hint that the stop in the Central African Republic may be in doubt, saying that he “hopes” to be able to do it. In past, he’s said simply that he would go.
A priest from the war-torn nation, however, told Crux that Francis will be safe, largely because of the presence of large contingents of international peace-keeping forces.
Addressing thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly Angelus prayer on Sunday, Francis appealed to the parties involved to “put an end to this cycle of violence.”
“I express my solidarity to the Church, other religious confessions, and to the entire nation, so harshly exhausted while making every possible effort to overcome divisions and return to the path of peace,” the pope said.
The Central African Republic is 80 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim. Its bloody conflict erupted in 2013, when the Seleka rebel group, whose name means “alliance”, was formed by Muslim military and political leaders who felt the government of newly elected president Francois Bozize had sidelined them for religious reasons.
Since then, more than 6,000 people have been killed and a quarter of the population displaced, leaving more than 400,000 refugees and 300,000 people homeless within the country.
The Seleka quickly took control of the capital, Bangui, with their fight rapidly turning sectarian as the rebel group slaughtered civilians, often employing rule-by-terror methods such as burning them alive.
With the government’s inability to protect residents, a counter-militia group was born, known as anti-Balaka. They take their names from their primary weapon, which is a machete combined with an AK-47.
On both sides, atrocities are frequent: large-scale killing, often grisly, as well as rape, lynching, and destruction of homes and neighborhoods.
The Rev. Herve Hubert Koyassambia-Kozondo told Crux that at its roots, the conflict is a political uprising tainted by religious beliefs. The Seleka group killed more Christians than Muslims, he said, and torched Christian stores while leaving others owned by Muslims intact.
The ant-Balaka militia, he claims, wasn’t motivated by Christian beliefs.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Koyassambia-Kozondo said reducing the conflict to religious fighting is inaccurate. He believes the former French colony is being “conquered” by foreign mercenaries from Chad and Sudan.
“For us,” he said, “rebel groups getting together to fight the established power is nothing new, because the country’s political history is ‘rich’ in military coups.”
Yet soon after the rebellion started, it was clear this was “a conquering force full of mercenaries. They destroyed state structures, attacked the population, destroyed our country’s history and symbols, systematically, in every city.”
“There was the clear, programmed violence against Christians,” Koyassambia-Kozondo said. “Everywhere but in the capital, church structures were destroyed.”
It’s from this systematic destruction that an anti-Muslim feeling grew, but the priest claims it’s never been about Christians retaliating against Muslims. The anti-Balaka militias were motivated to respond because “they had lost their spouses, their children, their homes, their jobs,” he said. “They lost it all.”
Soon after their formation, the anti-Balaka weren’t simply defending themselves, but launching reprisal killings against Muslim civilians.
According to Koyassambia-Kozondo, “before this, relations were good,” but now “the military doesn’t function anymore: we have two rebellious group fighting each other.”
Currently in Rome finishing his studies, Koyassambia-Kozondo spoke mere weeks after returning to Rome from his country. He had gone back home for the first time in years to celebrate his first Mass in his own country. His church was destroyed soon after, while he was still there.
Regarding Pope Francis’ visit, Koyassambia-Kozondo said the government doesn’t necessarily have the means to guarantee the safety of the pope.
“There’s nothing to protect the people: the army doesn’t work, the international forces do barely anything,” he said. “The population is self-organizing to defend themselves.”
Regardless, he said, the pope will be safe.
“There are international forces, from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and it’s them who protect the president … There’s also the French armed mission, present in the country,” he said. “They have the means to protect the pope.”