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Pope Francis calls for peace in conflict-hit Central Africa

Gianluigi Guercia, AFP | A United Nations Mission in Central African Republic (MINUSCA) soldier stands guard near a billboard of Pope Francis ahead of the pontiff’s visit to the conflict-hit country on November 29, 2015

Protected by the heaviest security ever seen on his trips, Pope Francis on Sunday preached reconciliation in the divided Central African Republic, a nation racked by bloodshed between Muslims and Christians.

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As the pope’s Alitalia plane touched down from Uganda to start his first visit to a war zone, attack helicopters patrolled the skies and armoured personnel carriers from French and UN peacekeeping forces waited outside the airport.

Special security forces wearing patches of the yellow and white colours of the Vatican flag were on hand to help his normal Vatican security retinue.

In an unprecedented precaution for papal trips, a UN soldier armed with a rifle rode in each of the mini-buses carrying reporters accompanying the pope.

Bangui, the capital of the former French colony, has seen a surge in clashes that have left at least 100 people dead since late September, according to Human Rights Watch.

France, which has around 900 soldiers deployed in the country, warned the Vatican this month that the visit could be risky but the pope was determined to go to the majority Christian nation.

Francis was driven in to the presidential palace, for much of the way in an open popemobile, and then to a camp housing nearly 4,000 people displaced by the violence, where he was greeted by adoring crowds.

“[The pope’s] security apparatus from the Vatican was trying to fend people off in Italian, but no one seemed to care, least of all the pope,” FRANCE 24's correspondent Margaux Benn reported from the camp.

“He went to see people, he went to greet children, he went to greet handicapped people. He distributed photographs of himself. One young man told me that for him the pope was like god’s diplomat, that armed groups in Central Africa wouldn’t listen to politicians but he really hoped they would listen to the pope.”

Pope meets people displaced by CAR violence

Francis told the camp’s inhabitants in a speech to “work, pray, do everything for peace”.

“But remember, peace without love, friendship and tolerance is nothing. I hope that all Central Africans can see peace,” he said.

Before being mobbed by the crowd, he asked them all to shout out repeatedly in their native Songo language: “We are all brothers.”

Hardened hearts

Tens of thousands of cheering people lined the route of his motorcade into the city and the presidential palace for a meeting with interim head of state Catherine Samba-Panza.

“We absolutely need forgiveness because our hearts have been hardened by the forces of evil. We have lost the sincere love for others and we are henceforth anchored in intolerance, the loss of our values and the disorder that is the result,” she told the pope.

“We await your messages to free us from our fear of each other, to help us end our conflicts, to change our hearts and put us on the path to serenity, wisdom, brotherhood and peace,” she said.

Speaking slowly in French, he appealed for a “unity in diversity” that shuns divisions along political or religious lines.

About 80 percent of CAR’s population is Christian, 15 percent is Muslim and 5 percent animist.

On Monday he is set to visit a mosque in a flashpoint area of Bangui.

The pope will meet members of the Muslim community and visit the Koudoukou mosque in the PK5 district, a maze of red dirt roads and flimsy shacks at the heart of recent sectarian violence.

He will meet with five imams at the mosque, then hold a ceremony nearby intended to promote religious reconciliation.

Wrapping up his three-country African tour, Francis will then celebrate a huge mass at the capital’s 20,000-seat Barthelemy Boganda Stadium before heading back to the Vatican.

Central African Republic’s government has deployed around 500 police and gendarmes to secure the visit. More than 3,000 peacekeepers from the MINUSCA UN mission have also been deployed and French troops are on alert as well.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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