Bangui (Matters India): Pope Francis on Monday concluded his three-nation Africa tour asserting that Christians and Muslims were brothers and urging them to reject hatred and violence.
“Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” the Pope said in an address at a mosque in a flashpoint Muslim neighborhood of the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui.
The visit to the central Koudoukou mosque in the PK5 district was the most dangerous part of his 24-hour visit to the war-torn nation, report agencies.
“Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace,” he said in the district which has been at the heart of recent sectarian violence pitting Muslim rebels against Christian vigilante groups.
“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. God is peace, salam,” he said.
Addressing residents crowded into the mosque, Francis said his visit to the Central African Republic “would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community.”
The pope visited the Muslim areas of this divided capital at the end of his visit to Central African Republic.
Under heavy security, he crossed into the PK5 neighborhood where Bangui’s Muslims have been unable to leave for months because armed Christian militia fighters have surrounded its perimeter. The pope traveled in his open-air vehicle through the neighborhood despite the security risks. Armed U.N. peacekeepers stood guard in the minarets of the mosque.
The pope’s visit immediately ushered in a greater sense of freedom to the beleaguered area. In what had been a no-man’s land separating the Muslim enclave from the rest of the city only the day before, thousands crossed over into the area chanting “war is over” in the local Sango language after the pope’s departure. Some followed the pope’s entourage all the way to the sports stadium where he said a final Mass before heading to the airport for his flight back to Italy.
Pope Francis had insisted on coming to the PK5 neighborhood to appeal for peace in a country where two years of Christian-Muslim violence has divided the capital and forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes. The once vibrant markets of PK5 have now been largely shuttered and many of the Muslim-owned businesses stand in ruins.
About 200 men seated inside the mosque welcomed Francis, who sat on a sofa.
The chief imam at the mosque, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, thanked Francis for his visit, which he said was “a symbol which we all understand.”
Pope Francis removed his shoes, bowed his head and stood silently at the mihrab, or area of the mosque that faces the holy Muslim city of Mecca.
The pope’s visit to the mosque marked the highlight of his three-nation African tour, with previous stops in Kenya and Uganda.
Central African Republic descended into conflict in 2013 when Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president. That ushered in a brutal reign. When the rebel leader left power the following year, a swift and horrific backlash against Muslim civilians ensued.
Throughout the early months of 2014, mobs attacked Muslims in the streets, even decapitating and dismembering them and setting their corpses ablaze. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Today, the capital that once had 122,000 Muslims has only around 15,000, according to Human Rights Watch.
Francis urged the international community not to view the country as doomed to a cycle of violence, saying the current conflict is a moment in time — “a painful moment, a regrettable moment, but just a moment.”
“Yes, I confirm, Christians and Muslims of this country are condemned to live together and love one another,” he added.
Before the fighting drove away many Muslims, Central African Republic was 37 percent Catholic and about 15 percent Muslim, with traditional faiths and Protestants making up the rest, Vatican figures show.
While the two opposing militias are identified by their religious affiliation, Muslim and Catholic leaders disavow the perpetrators of violence.
On a visit to the St. Sauveur internally displaced persons camp Sunday in central Bangui, home to about 3,000 people uprooted by the conflict, Francis laid his hands on children’s heads in a gesture of blessing.
“My wish for you and for all Central Africans is peace,” he told them.
During his tour of Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic, Francis has repeatedly struck on themes of reconciliation and tolerance.
He urged a gathering of religious leaders Thursday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to “pray all men and women will see themselves as brothers and sisters, united in and through our difference. Let us pray for peace.”
He has also used his first visit to Africa to raise issues such as poverty, corruption, climate change and poaching.
On Friday, he waded into the heart of a Kenyan shantytown, spreading a message of acceptance and lashing out at the elite for neglecting the poor.
Francis also delivered a warning Thursday ahead of a climate change conference that began Monday in Paris. He urged nations to reach an agreement to curb fossil fuel emissions and to work together to find solutions to environmental degradation.
“It would be sad, and I dare say even catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good,” he said.
Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, visited several countries in Africa. During his nearly three decades in the papacy, Pope John Paul II also made dozens of trips to the continent.