Pope Francis ventured into one of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods on Monday to beg Christians and Muslims to end a spiral of hate, vendetta and bloodshed that has killed thousands over the past three years.
Under intense security, Francis passed through a no-man’s zone to enter PK5, a district where most Muslims who have not fled the capital of the Central African Republic have now sought refuge.
The neighbourhood has been cut off from the rest of the capital Bangui for the past two months by a ring of so-called anti-balaka Christian militias, who block supplies from entering and Muslims from leaving.
A heavy deployment of United Nations peacekeepers with rifles and bullet-proof vests was present throughout PK5 and armoured vehicles mounted with machineguns were positioned along the route of Pope Francis’ motorcade.
U.N. sharpshooters looked out from the tops of the minarets crowning the freshly repainted green and white mosque, where hundreds of PK5’s Muslims listened as Francis made an impassioned appeal for an end to the violence.
“Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” he said after a speech by Imam Tidiani Moussa Naibi, one of the local religious leaders trying to foster dialogue.
“Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace,” he said, noting that Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional religions had lived together in peace for many years.
He appealed for “an end to every act which, from whatever side, disfigures the face of God and whose ultimate aim is to defend particular interests by any and all means.”
Central African Republic descended into chaos in early 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian country, sparking reprisals from Christian militias. Leaders from both sides say the hate has been manipulated for political gain.
Healing rifts between Christian and Muslim communities has been a theme throughout Francis’ first visit to the continent, which has also taken him to Kenya and Uganda.
However, nowhere is his call for peace and reconciliation more pressing than in Central African Republic, where thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in clashes that have split the country along religious lines.