Pope Francis ended his visit to the violence-torn Central African Republic with cries for peace and pleas for a mercy that seeks and grants forgiveness.
In a country where political and ethnic rivalries also have split the population along religious lines, Pope Francis began Monday with a visit to the Koudoukou mosque in the predominantly Muslim PK5 area of Bangui.
After two years of civil war, much of the recurrent violence in the country involves the murder of a Christian or a Muslim, then retaliations from members of the other community. Most areas of Bangui are divided into Christian or Muslim neighbourhoods with “buffer zones” between them patrolled by UN peacekeepers.
“God is peace, ‘salam,'” the Pope said in his speech at the mosque, where armed UN peacekeepers monitored the crowd outside from each of the three minarets.
“Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” created by the same God, he said, and they must act like it.
“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,” Pope Francis added.
“The recent events and acts of violence which have shaken your country were not grounded in properly religious motives,” he said, but some have used God’s name as an excuse for their actions, which “disfigures the face of God.”
Pope Francis prayed that the elections scheduled for December 27 would be a symbol and victory of national unity rather than being seen as the victory of one particular faction.
“Make your country a welcoming home for all its children, regardless of their ethnic origin, political affiliation or religious confession,” the Pope urged the people.
Tidiani Moussa Naibi, the imam of the mosque, assured the pope that Central African Christians and Muslims know that they are brothers and sisters. “Trouble mongers could delay the completion of a particular project of common interest or compromise for a time a particular activity, but never, ‘inshallah,’ (God willing) can they destroy the bonds of brotherhood that unite our communities so solidly.”
After the speeches, Pope Francis asked the imam to show him the mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, the direction Muslims face when praying. The Pope and imam stood in front of it for several moments of silence.
The Catholic archbishop of Bangui, the president of the country’s evangelical Christian alliance and another imam have been leading a very public campaign of education and cooperation to end the violence. The three were present at the mosque for the pope’s visit.
Afterward, the Pope visited the camp for displaced people that has sprouted around the mosque, just as other camps have mushroomed around the city’s Catholic parishes.
To show just how special the visit was, Pope Francis personally opened the Holy Door at Bangui’s cathedral on Sunday, nine days before the official opening of the Year of Mercy.