Pope Francis arrived yesterday in the conflict-torn Central African Republic, brushing aside security concerns to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to a country where violence between Christian and Muslim militants has divided the capital city and forced nearly a million people from their homes over the last two years.
Schoolgirls in yellow and white dresses - the colours of the Holy See flag - joined government and church authorities to welcome Francis at the heavily secured Bangui airport. The pope’s Alitalia charter landed just beyond the settlement for displaced residents that has cropped up on the airport’s edge, housing some of those displaced by the violence.
We are all brothers. And because we’re brothers, we want peacePope Francis
As Francis emerged, a huge cheer broke out from the small crowd and the cheers continued along his motorcade route - some 5km of it in his open-sided popemobile - and then at a displacement camp where children sang him songs of welcome.
“My wish for you, and for all Central Africans, is peace,” Francis said at the Saint Sauveur church camp, where he was mobbed by ululating well-wishers and toddlers who embraced his white cassock. Francis then led them in a chant: “We are all brothers. We are all brothers. And because we’re brothers, we want peace,” he said.
The precarious security situation in Bangui, recently raised the possibility that the pope could cancel his visit. Less than a year ago, mobs beat Muslims to death in the streets, even decapitating and dismembering some. While sectarian clashes have left at least 100 people dead over the last two months, in recent days Bangui has been relatively free of gunfire.
In a speech at the presidential palace to interim president Catherine Samba-Panza and the diplomatic corps, Francis said he was coming to their country as a “pilgrim of peace, an apostle of hope.”
He urged national and international authorities to work together to “help the country progress above all in reconciliation, disarmament, consolidation of peace, in health care and in developing a healthy culture of administration at all levels.”
Ms Samba-Panza said the pope was a “peace messenger.”