BANGUI (Central African Republic) • Pope Francis yesterday said Christians and Muslims are "brothers", urging them to reject hatred and violence on a visit to a mosque in the Central African Republic's capital, which has been ravaged by sectarian conflict.
On the last leg of a three-nation tour of Africa, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics visited a flashpoint Muslim neighbourhood in Bangui, where tensions remain high after months of violence, on what was the most dangerous part of his 24-hour visit.
Thousands of people gathered at the roadside, cheering as his popemobile drove down the red dirt roads in a truly festive atmosphere.
"Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters," he said after meeting Muslim leaders at the central Koudoukou Mosque in the PK5 district, the last Muslim enclave in Bangui. "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," he said to his mostly Muslim audience.
Several hundred people packed into the mosque, including a number of people actually living there 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 Mr Ibrahim Paulin, a spokesman for the displaced.
Pope Francis said his visit to the nation "would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community", saying all those who believed in God "must be men and women of peace". There were also Catholic and evangelical residents in the crowd.
Perched high on the mosque's minarets were armed United Nations peacekeepers as a helicopter buzzed overhead. At the edge of the district, armed Muslim rebels stood alert in front of wooden barricades, watching carefully for any threat from Christian vigilante groups.
Despite the tight security, the visit took place in a relaxed atmosphere, an AFP correspondent said.
The 78-year-old pontiff has hammered home a message of peace and reconciliation during his visit to Central African Republic, which will end with a huge mass at the capital's 20,000-seat stadium.
After arriving from Uganda on Sunday, he urged people to avoid "the temptation of fear of others" of a different ethnic group or religion, before visiting a camp housing some 3,000 internally displaced people in the heart of the capital.
His message - and the fact that he actually visited the country despite significant security concerns - struck a chord with locals and drew pledges of peace and forgiveness.
"We should eat together, we should live together with Muslims," said Ms Clarisse Mbai, who lost all her possessions in inter-religious violence. "They looted everything, they burnt my house and I have nothing, but I am ready to forget."
Ms Nicole Ouabangue, whose husband was hacked to death with an axe, said she had heard many speeches before but the Pope's words were "different". "Pope Francis has more influence. If there is anybody who can resolve our problems on earth, it is him," she said.
On Sunday, Pope Francis opened a "holy door" at Bangui Cathedral, marking the symbolic beginning of a Jubilee Year dedicated to forgiveness and reconciliation. Until now, such a gesture has only ever taken place in the Vatican or in Rome.
Central African Republic's longtime Christian leader was ousted by rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka force in March 2013. The coup triggered violence between Muslim rebels and Christian militias.