BANGUI, Central African Republic — Despite strong concerns about his personal safety voiced by local and international observers alike, Pope Francis landed Sunday in the war-ravaged Central African Republic, where militias have been causing havoc for the past two years in a conflict that’s caused at least 6,000 deaths.
When Alitalia flight AZ A330 landed at the M’Poko Airport in Bangui, the national capital, Francis became the first pope in history to visit an active war zone.
“I come as a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope,” Francis said, after thanking national and international authorities for helping the country move “toward the normalization of its social life.”
The papal visit to what is conventionally ranked as one of the world’s poorest nations was so against the odds that Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza thanked the pope for his “exemplary lesson of courage and determination,” and for ignoring the security threats, “real or amplified.”
“In view of the uncertainties that have at times surrounded the pope’s visit in Central African land, your presence among us today is seen as a blessing from heaven,” Samba-Panza said in welcoming Francis to her official residence.
Francis arrived at the presidential palace after a three-mile ride in an open-air Pope-mobile through the streets of Bangui. Thousands braved the sun for hours, waiting to see him pass by, with posters depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesians, a religious order that operates several refugee camps in the country.
Addressing local authorities, diplomats, and representatives of international organizations, Francis called them to live up to the country’s motto: “Unity, dignity, labor.”
“Today, more than ever, this trilogy expresses the aspirations of each Central African,” Francis said. “Consequently, it is a sure compass for authorities called to guide the destiny of the country.”
Knowing that religious freedom is not always guaranteed in the Central African Republic, where violence often breaks along Christian/Muslim lines, Francis also called on local authorities to “work tirelessly to ensure that the Church enjoys favorable conditions for the fulfillment of her spiritual missions.”
Speaking in the name of the local Catholic hierarchy, Francis expressed “the readiness of the local Church to contribute even more to the promotion of the common good, particularly by working for peace and reconciliation.”
Upon leaving the presidential palace, Francis went to a refugee camp for displaced people, who form close to one-fourth of the country’s total population. Almost 4,000 people, mostly women and children, live in the settlement of white tents donated by the United Nations.
Touched by signs written on small white fabric carried by children, with words such as “peace”, “love”, “equality”, and “friendship”, Francis offered short off-the-cuff remarks and spent most of the visit greeting the almost 500 children, flanked by the Vatican’s security team and United Nations peacekeepers.
“Peace without love and forgiveness isn’t possible,” Francis said. “Each one of us has to do something [to forge peace]!”
“I wish for all of you, and everyone in Central Africa, peace, that you can live in peace regardless your ethnicity, culture, religion, social status,” he said.
For this to be possible, he said, it’s important that each recognizes the other as a brother, and trying to make his point, asked them to repeat it three times: “We’re all brothers!”
As journalists were leaving the refugee camp, residents screamed, “Be at ease, we love you, you’re safe.”
The conflict tearing the country apart begun in 2013, 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, a Christian.
With the help of foreign mercenaries from Chad and other neighboring countries, they took the capital, Bangui, and soon after devolved into sectarian killings, targeting Christians, destroying churches and Christian-run institutions such as schools and hospitals, and burning down homes.
The conflict escalated when the largely Christian civil population formed the anti-Balaka militias. From defending villages, they begun launching reprisal killings against Muslim civilians, motivated by the resentment the systematic killing of Christians had produced.
Even if observers insist the conflict is not religious at its roots, the fact that 80 percent of the population is Christian means they’re a majority in the anti-Balaka militias.
Once Samba-Panza called for national elections in October, the war momentarily died down. Since September, however, sectarian clashes have left at least 100 people dead, forcing the voting to be postponed to late December.
Speaking less than a month before those elections, Francis said it’s his “fervent wish” they open a new historical chapter.
In light of heightened security in preparation for the papal visit, recent days have been relatively free of gunfire in the capital.
But the challenges facing the Central African Republic are steep.
According a report released Saturday by the United Nations, 447,500 people have been internally displaced because of the fighting, and a similar number has taken refuge in neighboring countries. Human Rights Watch recently said that although violence between the militias has receded, attacks on civilians remain widespread, with witnesses describing them as retaliatory.
During the weeks leading up to the visit, concerns were raised regarding the ability of the country to guarantee the pope’s safety. The French Ministry of Defense had warned the Vatican against the visit to France’s former colony, and even the Vatican’s secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, had hinted that the visit could be canceled.
Yet Francis had his mind set on coming, even telling the pilot who flew him to Africa that he’d use a parachute if it wasn’t possible to land here Sunday.
The Central African Republic is the last stop of his Nov. 25-30 trip to Africa.
On Monday, before going back to Rome, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit a mosque in the neighborhood PK5, which has been under blockade by the anti-Balaka for the past two months and is considered one of the most volatile parts of a city gripped by violence.
According to Lewis Mudge, an Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, since the violence begun in 2013, it went from being a vibrant Muslim neighborhood of 122,000 to an isolated and fearful community of some 15,000. Mudge says that today, most of those left are heavily armed and ready to take revenge on anyone who attacks Muslims.
Before leaving on Monday, Francis will also celebrate a Mass, which will conclude his visit to Africa that took him also to Kenya and Uganda.
Even before arriving, Francis made a difference. With the help of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a new movement in the Catholic Church specialized in conflict resolution, all the presidential candidates in the Central African Republic came together for the first time since the conflict began.
For locals suffering through what had previously seemed a nightmare without a resolution in sight, the impact of the pope’s presence seemed tangible.
An Italian Comboni missionary nun named Sister Elianna Baldi, who’s been in the country for several years, put the point simply. For the people living in the camp visited by Pope Francis on Sunday, she said, “The war ended today.”