The red dirt roads around the main Catholic cathedral in the Central African Republic's capital Bangui received a makeover over the last week. Sections of the streets now boast a fresh layer of pressed gravel and plastic fencing along the curbsides, with roadblocks set up at certain points. Decorative ribbons are draped on nearby buildings and welcome banners are everywhere as the majority Christian country prepares for the arrival of a very famous and highly anticipated visitor: Pope Francis.
Shaking off security warnings that urged him to avoid the conflict-stricken country, Francis is expected to land in Bangui on Sunday morning fresh off visits to Uganda and Kenya. With the violence in the landlocked country largely occurring between Christian and Muslim armed groups, the pope is expected emphasize the need for improved relations between religions, echoing a message he has already expressed on previous stops during his tour of Africa.
"I wish with all my heart that my visit can contribute… to dressing the wounds and opening the way to a more serene future for Central African Republic and all its inhabitants," Francis said ahead of the trip.
The pope will spend two days in the mineral-rich country, where he is set to meet with dignitaries and local religious leaders. The pontiff will hold mass at the main cathedral in Bangui, and, if security allows, he is expected to pray at a mosque.
The papal visit has brought heightened security to the capital. The Vatican's own security team arrived days before Francis to scope out the situation, while additional UN troops have been deployed for both the pope's trip and the presidential elections scheduled for December 27. Convoys of UN peacekeepers drove near the cathedral on Saturday, and there was a noticeable national police presence on the streets of the capital.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has been mired in a bloody conflict for the past two years, and the violence has seen a resurgence in recent months. Many hope the pope's visit will set the stage for peace in the coming months and years.
The pope's visit comes almost two years to the day after an extreme wave of violence broke out in CAR, which is one of the world's poorest countries. In March 2013, the armed Seleka group, which aligns itself with the Muslim minority population, ousted President Francois Bozize. On December 5, rebel anti-Balaka fighters, who associate with the Christian majority, overran the capital and waged a brutal fight against the Muslim population.
In the months that followed, more than 400,000 people fled their homes, seeking refuge in local churches, the airport, and other locations. International agencies supplied tents and food as the crisis continued. Nearly half a million others fled to neighboring countries. A peace agreement was signed in July 2014, but the sectarian violence has persisted, particularly outside of the capital. In September, clashes again occurred in the capital, sparked by the killing of a Muslim taxi driver. Dozens have died in the weeks since.
Italian priest Frederico Trinchero, who runs a monastery in Bangui that has also become an unofficial camp hosting nearly 5,000 displaced people, said people are tired of the conflict and that the papal visit could re-energize the population.
"The people of Central African Republic are excited for the Pope's visit, they are waiting for a miracle," he said, backing both the pontiff and local Christian leaders. "I think only the Pope can find a solution for this war."
A handful of souvenir vendors line the road leading up the entrance of the main cathedral in the center of Bangui. Their stands are stocked with textiles, cardboard hats, posters, and flags — all emblazoned with images of the pope wearing his typical white vestiges. He will hold a service inside the church on Sunday afternoon, and a projector has been set up outside to broadcast the ceremony for the thousands of people from all over the country who are expected to show up.
'I think only the Pope can find a solution for this war.'
"I hope the Pope's visit will be a relief for me and also for all the people of this country," said Olivier Placide Souhgoula, a 27-year-old university student who is running a souvenir stand with his friends at the cathedral.
Souhgoula moved to the capital to study law with the hope of becoming a human rights defender. He says the injustices he experienced as a child, particularly the lack of education, as well as recent hardships, have motivated him to pursue this field. During the latest surge in violence in September, armed men burned down his house. He has since been forced to move in with his friend and pope paraphernalia business partner Benjamin Begoma.
Begoma, who typically sells rosaries and other religious garb, opened the stall on Monday and said he is already selling more than normal. The group has been sleeping on the grounds of the cathedral to hold down their front row spot. While the decision clearly has a business advantage, they're also clearly excited about the opportunity to see the pope up close and personal.
While the pope's visit is an encouraging event and a symbol of potential peace, many citizens pointed to the need for presidential elections to go on as scheduled at the end of December. As Souhgoula pointed out, it will fall into the hands of the people of Central African Republic to achieve a political solution and keep the peace.
"The pope's visit will encourage the people of this country to reconcile," he said. "The security should be our will. We cannot rely on outside [forces] about our own security."
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Watch the trailer for the upcoming VICE News documentary United in Hate: Central African Republic: