Pope Francis has visited a mosque under siege from armed Christian militias in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, and took the occasion to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation in a show of solidarity.
BANGUI, Central African Republic:
The 26-hour visit to Bangui was the first time the pope has visited an active war zone. CAR has been embroiled in civil war since President François Bozizé was ousted in a coup by Muslim rebels.
After removing his shoes on entering the Koudoukou mosque and bowing towards the holy Muslim city of Mecca, the pope told several hundred men inside that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters”.
“Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself. God is peace. Salaam,” he added, using the Arabic word for peace.
Pope Francis said his visit to CAR “would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community”.
Children running beside the Pope in Bangui, Central African Republic
The chief imam at the mosque, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, thanked Pope Francis for his visit, which he said was “a symbol which we all understand”.
Some Muslims are living in the mosque after being forced out of their homes by the violence. “We are very proud to welcome him. The pope is not only for the Christians, he is a servant of God for all Central Africans,” said Ibrahim Paulin, a spokesman for the displaced.
Armed UN peacekeepers were positioned on the mosque’s minarets and a helicopter hovered overhead. At the edge of the district, armed Muslim rebels stood in front of wooden barricades, watching for any threat from Christian vigilante groups.
The visit came towards the end of the pope’s six-day Africa tour, which included visits to Kenya and Uganda. After celebrating mass in a sports stadium, Pope Francis departed for Rome.
Pope Francis during a visit to the Koudoukou mosque in Bangui. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images