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Pope Francis Is About To Head Into A War Zone For First Time Ever

Securing a papal visit is never easy. And how do you do it when the most public Christian figure in the world heads into a country in tatters, devastated by sectarian Christian-Muslim violence?
La garde suisse en habit de cérémonie - Photo par Laudio Peri/EPA

On November 29, a sitting pope will travel to an active war zone for the first time in modern history, when Pope Francis visits the Central African Republic, or CAR.

During his stay, the pope will officiate two masses, one at the Cathedral of Bangui — CAR's capital city — the other in the 20,000-seat Barthelemy Boganda Stadium. He will go to a displaced persons camp in St. Savior Parish, and visit Bangui's central mosque, a portion of the itinerary the Vatican has described as "very dangerous."


CAR has endured more than two years of brutal sectarian violence between Muslim and Christian militias. More than 6,000 people have been killed and more than 800,000 have been driven from their homes, according to an October report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The head of the Catholic Church is about to walk into that situation, just weeks after a spate of mass attacks by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State group, which has promised in its propaganda videos that it would come for Rome soon.

After the November 13 Paris attacks, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement it was important to be "cautious, and not irresponsible." The pope's plainclothes security detail was increased from 12 to 20 during his general audience five days later in St. Peter's Square. Lombardi earlier told reporters that the Vatican is continuously monitoring the situation on the ground in CAR, but that the pope will definitely be there.

Related: Spiraling Violence Puts Brakes on Central African Republic's Journey to Democracy

A certain degree of danger exists in Kenya and Uganda — the pope's previous two stops on his Africa trip — just as it does in CAR, but CAR is the most dangerous, says Andreas Widmer, a professor at the Catholic University of America who served as a Swiss Guardsman on Pope John Paul II's protection detail. Widmer calls the symbolism of the trip to CAR "tremendous," as the plight of the less fortunate has always been Pope Francis's main focus, and there are few places suffering more at the moment than CAR.


In September, the UN condemned a grenade attack carried out by unidentified men on motorcycles in the neighborhoods of Petevo and Fatima, killing two people. Grenades have been thrown into public markets, and at funeral processions. They're also easy to come by. Bangui resident and political activist Bruno-Serge Piozza told VICE News that grenades are currently selling for 100 Central African francs, or roughly 16 cents. A chicken costs as much as 4,000 francs, or about $6.50.

For more than a year, CAR's day-to-day security has been in the hands of a largely ineffectual contingent of multinational UN peacekeepers, a number of whom have been accused of sexually abusing local children. France, which has 900 troops stationed in its former colony, has said it will be unable to provide adequate security for Pope Francis during his visit, and asked the Vatican to cancel the trip. An unnamed French Defense Ministry official told the AFP news agency that French forces would not "have the means to ensure security" during the papal visit.

"We've let the Pope know his arrival in the CAR will carry high risks for himself, and particularly for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims coming from Cameroon, Chad, and the Congo," the official said. "Our own [French] forces can secure the airport and provide a medical evacuation capacity for the authorities in case of an accident. But they cannot go any further."


Watch VICE News' The Human Cost of War in the Central African Republic

In the past, Pope Francis has said that his life "is in God's hands," though in reality, his day-to-day personal safety is the responsibility of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. Founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II, it is the world's smallest, and oldest, standing army.

Advance work is the responsibility of the Swiss Guard's vice-commander, who has made at least one announced trip to CAR so far. The pope's traveling team will be, as usual, in plainclothes. They will be supplemented by a squad of plainclothes Vatican police, also standard operating procedure. At the anticipatory level, the Vatican security forces have frequent interchanges and consultations with their counterparts in other countries, and are members of Interpol.

"This pope is a hard pope to protect," says Widmer, noting Francis's penchant for walking into crowds to mingle with the faithful. "All the modern popes are hard to protect, but this is also a time when executive protection is a really tough job."

A Vatican spokesman told reporters that the pope, who refused to ride in an armored Popemobile during a 2014 trip to the Middle East, has also nixed the idea of using one in CAR, and will not wear a bulletproof vest. However, there are a few simple ways to help manage at least some of the risk, says Widmer. Making last-minute changes to Pope Francis's meticulously planned (and very public) schedule would be an easy wrench to throw into potential attacks. Since predictability increases the chance of attack, injecting some uncertainty into the mix is one of the best weapons the pope's protectors can use.


Related: How to Protect the Pope in the Philippines: A New Popemobile, Tons of Security, and Adult Diapers

Of course, Swiss Guardsmen, like the Vatican police, will be armed with actual weapons, as well. The public usually only sees Guardsmen on ceremonial duty in Rome, wearing floppy hats or Renaissance-style helmets and baggy pantaloons. However, they are as well equipped as any other modern security service, with a range of firearms at their disposal, including the Glock 19 pistol, and at least one variant of the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun.

"We give the pope the optimal security that still enables him to practice and pursue his ministry," says Widmer. "If the pope can't bless people, and say mass, and kiss babies and hug newlyweds, then he's not really the pope anymore."

Accessibility is absolutely part of the mission for Francis, but his open style comes with unprecedented risks, says historian David Alvarez, author of The Pope's Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican.

"There's no doubt that he is a potential target for attack, and he's going to a country which is ribboned with sectarian Christian-Muslim conflict," Alvarez tells VICE News. "It's a very dangerous situation for him to be in."

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, his personal protection team was supported by what federal officials described as one of the largest security mobilizations in American history. The CAR, of course, does not have the reach and firepower of the United States government, but its minister of public security, General Chrysostome Sambia, recently sought to calm anxieties about the pope's upcoming trip, saying the government of CAR had "put in place a plan to secure the pope's visit," and that he would "do [his] very best to ensure it is well-implemented."

As Alvarez said, "Fingers crossed."

Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @JustinRohrlich