BANGUI, (Reuters) – Protected by the heaviest security ever seen on his trips, Pope Francis yesterday preached reconciliation in the divided Central African Republic, a nation racked by bloodshed between Muslims and Christians.
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 U.N. 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 security retinue.
In an unprecedented precaution for papal trips, a U.N. soldier armed with a rifle rode in each of the minibuses 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.
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.
“Reconciliation, forgiveness, love, peace,” he said in a dramatic voice in the homily of a Mass at the city’s cathedral in the afternoon, appealing to warring militias to “lay down these instruments of death”.
Francis was driven past tens of thousands of cheering people to and from events in a simple car or an open popemobile.
“Work, pray, do everything for peace. But remember, peace without love, friendship and tolerance is nothing,” he said at one stop, a visit to camp housing some 4,000 people displaced by the violence in Bangui’s neighbourhoods.
He was mobbed by the crowd and asked them all to shout out repeatedly in their native Songo language: “We are all brothers”.
The tight security continued in the afternoon when he opened a “holy door” at the city’s cathedral for a symbolic local start of the Roman Catholic Church’s jubilee year on the theme of mercy. The jubilee begins officially at the Vatican on Dec. 8.
“The Holy Year of Mercy is coming early to this land that has been suffering for years from hate, incomprehension and lack of peace,” he said, standing on the cathedral steps.