Pope Francis Sunday called for unity in the Central African Republic (CAR), a country torn by strife between Christians and Muslims, urging its citizens to "avoid the temptation to fear others."
The 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff arrived in the morning in Bangui on the last leg of a six-day African tour taking him to Kenya, Uganda and CAR. Unity "is to be lived and built up on the basis of the marvelous diversity of our environment, avoiding the temptation to fear others, the unfamiliar, what is not part of our ethnic group, our political views or our religious confession," he said in a speech before interim President Catherine Samba-Panza and other dignitaries.
Describing himself as a "pilgrim of peace," the pontiff said the local Catholic Church would work for reconciliation. Samba-Panza said the pope's visit was a "blessing from Heaven" and that he could help CAR defeat "the demons of division, hatred and self-destruction."
Muslim as well as Catholic representatives came to the airport to welcome Francis. "The Holy Father has not come to Central Africa for the Catholics, but for Central Africans. It is a good omen for reconciliation between Muslims and Central Africans," said El Adji Tchakpabrede, a representative of the country's Islamic community. Francis was expected to use the "Popemobile" during his visit, despite concerns that the local authorities would not be able to guarantee his safety. Samba-Panza praised the pope for coming to her country despite security fears. Local security forces are backed up by more than 10,000 UN peacekeepers and French troops present in the country.
CAR has suffered sectarian violence since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew president Francois Bozize, a Christian, in March 2013. Thousands have been killed, and about a quarter of the 4.7-million population has been displaced by the conflict. There was concern that extremists from either side could use the papal visit to break the tense calm and instigate new violence.
Francis' African tour is his 11th trip abroad since he became pope in 2013. Africa is home to an estimated 180 million Catholics, and their numbers are growing faster than anywhere else in the world.