ROME — Officials at the French Ministry of Defense reportedly are urging Pope Francis to cancel his scheduled Nov. 29-30 visit to the Central African Republic because the 900 French troops in the war-torn nation can’t guarantee the pontiff’s safety.
No pope has ever canceled a trip for security reasons once dates have been announced, and a Vatican spokesman said Thursday that Francis is still committed to stopping in the Central African Republic as part of a larger African visit that includes Kenya and Uganda.
“The decision belongs to the pope,” spokesman the Rev. Ciro Benedettini said. “The Holy Father isn’t concerned for himself, but because [his visit] could put the lives of others at risk.”
The Paris-based newspaper Le Monde reported that officials of the French Ministry of Defense told journalists on Wednesday that the visit is considered “high risk,” and that their forces are not adequate to provide security. If it goes ahead, Francis’ visit to the Republic would mark the first time a pope has visited an active war zone.
Beyond the French mission, there are currently 10,806 uniformed personnel under the aegis of the United Nations in the Central African Republic acting as a peacekeeping force in a country that’s geographically as large as France.
More than 2,000 reinforcements are scheduled to arrive before a Dec. 13 referendum, but they’ll be too late for the pope’s visit.
Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held Dec. 27, after being postponed in October due to violence and instability. Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza, who’s struggling to maintain peace, is not allowed to be a candidate.
The Central African Republic is 80 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim. In 2013, a bloody conflict erupted when the Seleka rebel group was formed by Muslim military and political leaders who felt sidelined by the government of newly elected President Francois Bozize.
They took control of the capital, and soon after, their mission included sectarian killings, with the rebels slaughtering civilians.
The conflict escalated when the civil population, mostly Christian, formed the anti-balaka militias. Soon after their formation, their mission, too, became bloodier. From defending the villages, they begun launching reprisal killings against Muslim civilians, motivated by the resentment the systematic killing of Christians had produced.
So far, more than 6,000 people have been killed, a quarter of the population has been displaced, leaving more than 400,000 refugees and 300,000 people who fled elsewhere in the country.
Pope Francis is scheduled to spend fewer than 30 hours in Bangui, where he’ll visit a refugee camp, meet the Muslim community at a mosque, and celebrate two Masses. The French mission is trying to persuade him to reduce the length of his stay if he refuses to cancel the visit altogether.
Earlier in the month, during his weekly Angelus prayer, Francis appeared to hint that the stop in the Central African Republic, the third stop of his five-day trip, might be in doubt.
The pontiff then said he “hopes” to be able to do it. In past, he’s said simply that he would go.
“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,” Francis said Nov. 2.