BANGUI (Africa) • 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 UN peacekeeping forces waited outside the airport.
Bangui, capital of the former French colony, has seen a surge in clashes that has left at least 100 people dead since late September, according to Human Rights Watch.
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.
He was driven to the presidential palace, and then to a camp housing nearly 4,000 people displaced by the violence.
"Work, pray, do everything for peace," he said at the camp. "But remember, peace without love, friendship and tolerance is nothing. I hope that all Central Africans can see peace," he said.
Before being mobbed by the crowd, he asked them all to shout out repeatedly in their native Songo language: "We are all brothers."
Tens of thousands of cheering people lined the route of his motorcade into the city and the presidential palace for a meeting with interim head of state Catherine Samba-Panza.
"We absolutely need forgiveness because our hearts have been hardened by the forces of evil," she told the Pope. Speaking slowly in French, he appealed for a "unity in diversity" that shuns divisions along political or religious lines.