Pope Francis blesses children on a visit to the refugee camp of Saint Sauveur in Bangui.
Pope Francis yesterday brought a message of peace to war-torn Central African Republic, visiting a sprawling refugee camp and calling for unity in a country plagued by sectarian violence.
“I come to the Central African Republic as a pilgrim of peace and as an apostle of hope,” the 78-year-old Pontiff said on landing in one of Africa’s poorest and most unstable countries, on a 24-hour visit fraught with concerns for his safety.
Cheers and singing erupted as his plane touched down at Bangui’s international airport from Uganda on the final leg of his three-country tour of Africa, which he hailed as “the continent of hope.”
For the short ride to the presidential palace in Bangui, the Pontiff travelled in his open-topped Popemobile, with huge crowds, many of them children and young people, cheering wildly as he passed, some waving branches in a sign of peace.
At the palace he met with acting President Catherine Samba-Panza, who begged his forgiveness for the wave of “evil” sectarian violence that has devastated the country.
“Central Africans have inflicted unspeakable suffering on other Central Africans,” she said.
“On behalf of the ruling class of this country but also in the name of everyone who has played any part in this descent into hell, I confess all the evil that has been done here throughout the course of history and ask for forgiveness from the bottom of my heart.”
In his own address, Francis called for unity, urging the people to avoid “the temptation of fear of others, of the unfamiliar, of what is not part of our ethnic group, our political views or our religious denomination.”
He also said he hoped the upcoming elections would allow the country to peacefully begin a “new chapter”.
“It is my fervent wish that the various national consultations to be held in coming weeks will enable the country to embark serenely on a new chapter of its history,” he said ahead of a first round of presidential and legislative elections which will be held on December 27.
The country descended into bloodshed more than two years ago after longtime Christian leader Francois Bozize was ousted by rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka force, triggering the worst crisis since independence in 1960.
Since then, the former French colony has been gripped by violence between ex-Seleka members and Christian “anti-balaka” militias.
The leader of the world’s 1.2bn Catholics then went on to visit the sprawling Mpoko refugee camp by Bangui airport which is home to nearly 20,000 people who have been forced out of their homes by the violence. UN figures show close to 450,000 people remain internally displaced by the conflict.
As he entered the camp, a sea of hands reached out to him as he wandered past a crowd packed with children and parents holding their toddlers out towards him. Beaming in delight, the Pontiff reached out and laid his hands on the children’s heads in a gesture of blessing.
“We are very pleased to see the Pope,” said Fidele Nodjindorom. “He knows that things have happened in our country and maybe he has come to ask God to save us.”
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