Hundreds of people stormed through the gates of a schoolyard in the Central African Republic on Monday, kicking up clouds of dust as they chased Pope Francis — an unlikely visitor to the capital city's tense Muslim neighborhood.
The pontiff arrived in an open-air truck and drove through crowds in the PK-5 neighborhood during one of his last — and arguably riskiest — stops during his two-day tour of Bangui. Muslim men and women greeted the pope inside a compound that houses both the city's main mosque and a makeshift displacement camp for people forced to flee their homes during the bloody conflict that began in 2013 and remains ongoing.
The fighting has pitted the armed Seleka group, which aligns itself with the country's Muslim minority population, against rebel anti-Balaka fighters, who associate with the Christian majority. Preaching a message of reconciliation, Francis has managed to revive hope for peace.
One woman wiped tears from her eyes and a group of women held a banner welcoming the pope on behalf of the displaced Muslims of Bangui. A group of men held matching signs that said "Yes to inter-religious dialogue." Francis addressed a group of worshipers gathered inside the mosque and urged Christians and Muslims to come together.
"Christians and Muslims, we are all brothers," he said. "Everybody who says he is a believer is a man or woman of peace."
Muslims account for around 15 percent of the CAR's population of 4.7 million, and an estimated 15,000 of those individuals reside in PK-5, which has been isolated by anti-Balaka fighters. Few residents leave the area, either because of restrictions or for their own safety. Many children are unable to go to school because it requires venturing out of the neighborhood. Muslims from around the capital were forced to relocate here after the war began, and thousands now live in the displacement camp at the mosque.
After the schoolyard stampede, a young Muslim named Abakar Babikir held up a metal cross and proclaimed his love for the pope, explaining that his Christian father obtained the crucifix during Pope John Paul II's visit to the country in 1985. "I love you Pope Francis!" he exclaimed in English. "I really love you!"
Babikir said his mother is Muslim and he followed in her faith, but Francis' message of unity and peace resonates with him."The pope said Christians and Muslims should love each other and develop solidarity among us," he said.
He expressed concern for the country's youth, saying families have been divided and children have been unable to receive a proper education. "They don't have anyone to care about them. They can easily become fighters for future conflicts because they don't have hope."
The pope's visit on Sunday afforded the population a rare chance to travel outside of the restricted area. Muslims could be seen walking with their children or piled onto motorcycles as they followed Francis all the way to the city's soccer stadium, where he hosted a final mass before flying home to the Vatican.
The freedom of movement recalled a time in the CAR when Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side in peace. Most residents and religious leaders are quick to emphasize that the armed groups have used faith as a tool of manipulation.
Fatou Asham, a resident of PK-5, expressed the desire for security and a life where Muslims can once again visit friends or family members who are Christian. "The life here is very hard," she said. "I am ready to forgive because all that violence is in the past. We should forget and move forward."
The population's desire for peace, however, does not necessarily ensure a smooth path toward reconciliation. Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for December 27, but even the will of religious leaders and politicians cannot guarantee that the warring groups will lay down their arms. Peace mediator Bohari Daouda said he plans to bring together different stakeholders in the coming days to begin working on a solution. Success, he said, hinges on bringing the armed groups to the table.
"The aim is to build a common understanding of the situation by the two groups because they are the ones who are fighting," Daouda said.
The need to get all sides involved in the peace process was not lost on Francis, who directly addressed weapons during his visit. "To all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world, I make this appeal: lay down these instruments of death!" he said.
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