ROME — A Vatican spokesman confirmed Thursday that Pope Francis still plans to travel to the Central African Republic later this month, despite the risks associated with a bloody civil conflict still raging, as well as heightened security concerns related to the Paris terrorist attacks.
The pontiff’s stop in Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital, will be the third leg of a Nov. 25-30 visit to Africa, which will also include visits to Kenya and Uganda.
“Nothing has changed from what we’ve said 50 times before,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi said. “The pope wants to go to the Central African Republic, [and] the plan is still for him to go.”
“As every wise person would, we’re monitoring the situation, and at the moment, the plan is to go,” Lombardi told reporters.
If at the last minute there is a change in the program, Lombardi said, it would be out of concern for those attending the papal events.
“The pope is not worried about himself,” he said.
This will be the first time in his life that Francis will visit Africa, and according to Lombardi, he’s going to “bring a message of peace and reconciliation to the continent.”
The trip will be heavy on interreligious and inter-Christian dialogue, with an encounter with Christian and Muslim leaders in Kenya, a visit to the Anglican martyrs’ shrine in Namugongo, Uganda, and a stop at a mosque in the Central African Republic.
That stop is particularly significant, since the Central African Republic is currently engaged in a war between Islamic and Christian militias. Francis is also scheduled to visit a camp for refugees driven from their homes by the war.
The country has been rocked by violence since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition toppled the newly elected president in 2013. Their widespread human rights abuses against Christians led to the formation of a Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka, which has targeted Muslims and sent tens of thousands fleeing to neighboring countries.
Lombardi also confirmed that the head of Vatican security, Domenico Giani, will travel to the Central African Republic “in the upcoming days” to do a final evaluation of the safety, joining the papal entourage in Kenya.
Italian newspapers reported that Giani will leave for Africa Friday.
On Monday, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s top diplomat, hinted that a change in the program was still possible. He told journalist that “the three stops remain, but we’ll see depending on the situation on the ground.”
Last week, before terror attacks shook Paris, the French Ministry of Defense had warned the Vatican against the visit, labeling it “high risk.”
But on the other hand, interim Central African Republic President Catherine Samba-Panza, who’s called for national elections in December after spats of violence forced her to cancel them last October, recently said that the pope’s arrival “would be a blessing” and said that “he has to come.”
Florence Ntakarutimana, a native of Burundi who’s works in the CAR with Catholic Relief Services, the overseas charity arm of US bishops, said the pope’s visit could be a unique opportunity to bring healing to the nation.
“Everyone is excited to receive the pope,” she told Crux. “If he comes, it’ll be a great message.”