BANGUI, Central African Republic: Pope Francis arrived as “a pilgrim of peace” in conflict-ridden Central African Republic on Sunday, flying in from Uganda on what will be the most dangerous destination of his three-nation Africa tour.
Thousands of believers, many from neighboring countries, are expected to pour into CAR’s capital Bangui to see the 78-year-old pontiff on his landmark visit to one of Africa’s poorest and most unstable countries.
“I come to the Central African Republic as a pilgrim of peace and as an apostle of hope,” the pope said on his official Twitter feed as his plane touched down at around 10 a.m. at Bangui’s international airport where he was greeted by acting CAR President Catherine Samba-Panza.
Ahead of his arrival, the roads leading to the airport were bristling with troops and security forces, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.
Close to the airport, tens of thousands of displaced people have sought refuge from the violence at a sprawling makeshift camp near French and UN military bases.
Ahead of the pope’s arrival, workers have been busily repairing potholes and sprucing up the cathedral square for the visit, which many are hoping will bring encouragement to a country where religious violence has raged for more than two years.
Rights groups hope the Argentinian pope will address the violence on his two-day trip during which he will visit a mosque in Bangui’s flashpoint PK5 district, a maze of red dirt roads and flimsy shacks that has been at the heart of the sectarian conflict tearing the impoverished nation apart.
The area saw an unprecedented wave of violence pitting majority Christians against minority Muslims in late 2013 and early last year.
‘He knows about our country’
Francis is also due to celebrate Mass in the Barthelemy Boganda sports stadium and visit a camp for people who have been displaced by the violence.
Stalls have sprung up across the capital selling everything from Vatican flags to paper crowns to welcome the pope.
“We are very pleased to see the pope,” said Fidele Nodjindorom, who is sheltering at a camp in Bangui.
“He knows that things have happened in our country and maybe he has come to ask God to save us.”
The Central African Republic was plunged into chaos after President Francois Bozize was ousted in a coup in March 2013.
The mainly Muslim rebels behind the coup went on a rampage that triggered the creation of the equally dangerous anti-Balaka militia in mostly Christian communities.
Concerns about the pope’s safety have been running high ahead of his visit, and the pontiff’s chief bodyguard, Domenico Gianni, has spent several days consulting local security forces.
Speaking late on Saturday, the Vatican’s spokesman said Francis’ itinerary had been confirmed and all was expected to go ahead as planned, including the visit to PK5 “if there are no particular surprises.”
“Everything has been done to ensure the safety of the pope… there is no real threat,” said CAR Public Security Minister Chrysostome Sambia, while admitting there have been reports of “ill-intentioned groups in some areas.”
‘A real opportunity’
At the height of the massacres, around one in five of CAR’s 4.6 million people were displaced and half the population depended on humanitarian aid.
Violence continues to stalk the country, with at least 61 people killed in Bangui in late September before UN and French peacekeeping forces intervened.
Ilaria Allegrozzi of rights group Amnesty International said the pope “has a real opportunity to call for the protection of civilians of all faiths, and use his great moral authority to help reduce the tension that has recently resulted in deadly violence.”
The pontiff left Uganda early Sunday, a day after huge crowds celebrated as he honored Christians martyred for the faith on the second leg of his first trip to Africa, which he hailed as “the continent of hope.”
He also offered prayers for “the beloved people of Burundi” that the troubled central African nation will end months of strife that has sparked fears of renewed civil war.