Pope’s Central African Republic visit puts him on war fault line

When the leader of the world’s Catholics visits a mosque in the Central African Republic on Monday, he’ll be crossing the fault line of a nation that’s been wracked by more than two years of sectarian violence.

The last and most dangerous leg of Pope Francis’ three- nation African tour takes him to a country where thousands of people have been killed since 2013 as fighting has raged between Muslim and Christian militias. He arrived in Bangui, the capital, on Sunday and is due to speak the following day at a mosque in Kilometer 5, a Muslim enclave also known as PK5 where as many as 100 people have been killed over the past two months.

“The pope is going to CAR to encourage dialogue and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims,” said Thierry Vircoulon, Central African Republic project director for the International Crisis Group. “Since 2014, PK5 is the symbol of this fighting, so a message of peace delivered in PK5 is essential.”

The nation has been gripped by violence since mainly Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize in March 2013, an ousting marked by the widespread killing of civilians. Christians set up a rival militia, the anti-balaka, which has committed similar atrocities. Almost 1 million people have fled their homes because of the violence.

The army has disintegrated, while armed groups have partitioned the nation of 5 million people and battle to control the gold and diamond trade. The country was ranked the world’s 10th-biggest diamond producer by value in 2012, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Recent sectarian violence in Bangui, sparked by the killing of a Muslim taxi driver, is the worst bloodshed in the city since early 2014. The United Nations has more than 10,000 soldiers and police in the country, while former colonial ruler France deployed 1,200 troops last year.

Symbolic Visit

“This visit is a critical moment for a senior religious figure to condemn the violence by all sides, urge tolerance, and call for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Lewis Mudge, country researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Pope Francis’ arrival in Central African Republic follows visits to Kenya and Uganda that began Nov. 25 and comprise his first official trip to Africa since his papacy began almost three years ago. The 78-year-old pontiff is also scheduled to meet government officials, visit a camp for people displaced by the violence and hold a mass in the national stadium before leaving the country on Monday. Last week, religious leaders from all denominations in Bangui called for a cease-fire before his visit.

Central African Republic is the most symbolic part of the entire papal trip, with the mosque visit key to a message of interfaith reconciliation, according to Vircoulon.

“If this part of the pope’s program was changed, the meaning of the visit would be diminished,” he said.

 – Bloomberg [Ilya Gridneff]