World

Pope Francis goes to war-ravaged Central African Republic Sunday, amid killings and violence

Pope Francis will land Sunday in Central African Republic, a nation embroiled for almost three years in an inter-religious conflict of shocking brutality that has effectively split the former French colony in two.

Imam to welcome Pope at mosque in Central African Republic capital's segregated Muslim zone

A Muslim woman is sheltered at the central mosque in the PK5 neighbourhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov. 25. Pope Francis will visit the mosque Monday after addressing Catholics Sunday. He said he hopes to heal divisions between Christians and Muslims. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

A 300-metre stretch of no-man's-land marks the entrance to PK5, an enclave in Bangui where most of the Muslims who have not been killed or fled Central African Republic's capital are slowly being strangled by a blockade.

Small groups of Christian militia fighters — so-called anti-balaka — armed with daggers and grenades lay in wait by the road, scrutinizing the few passing vehicles to ensure supplies do not get in — and no Muslim gets out.

"The mosques were destroyed. The Koran was torn up. They killed Muslim civilians without distinction and confined them to enclaves. That's when we realized it wasn't about politics," said Ahmadou Tidjane Moussa Naibi, the imam at PK5's mosque.

A woman walks by the central mosque in Bangui's PK5 area, where displaced Muslims have been sheltered since sectarian violence in the capital first broke out. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

Pope Francis will land on Sunday in Central African Republic, a nation embroiled for nearly three years in an inter-religious conflict of shocking brutality that has effectively split the former French colony in two.

Thousands have been killed and more than one in five have fled internally or sought refuge abroad.

Given the circumstances, Naibi might be expected to denounce the trip by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church as a reckless provocation.

Instead, the mosque, which Francis is due to visit on Monday, is getting a fresh coat of green paint.

"He's not here to judge the Central Africans. He's come to contribute, to mobilize people. Personally, I think it's positive, and we will try to benefit from his advice," Naibi said as a burst of gunfire rang out in the distance.

Central Africans on both sides of the religious chasm have rallied behind the papal visit, reducing the risk that his presence could add fuel to the fire of communal tensions.

Even Seleka, the mainly Muslim rebel coalition whose brief seizure of power in 2013 helped trigger waves of violence and reprisal killings, has publicly supported the trip.

In a statement before his visit, the pope made his intentions clear.

"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," he said.

It is a message Cynthia Mayo, a Christian in the M'Poko camp for displaced civilians, is prepared to embrace.

Pope Francis waves to faithful as he arrives for a Papal mass in Kenya's capital Nairobi, on Thursday. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

"We want the pope to bring us peace," she said as her one-day-old baby slept next to her on a cot in the camp's hospital. "When he comes, it's certain that we will reconcile."

Security has improved slightly this year, but recent events have shown just how elusive peace remains.

Mayo fled to M'Poko, a stone's throw from the airport where Pope Francis will land, when armed Muslims burned down her house in a wave of tit-for-tat violence in September.

Since then, the camp's population has more than doubled to as many as 22,000 desperate people.

Maternity ward

Its hospital, run by the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, treated 170 wounded in October, and daily medical consultations have ballooned from around 250 before September to some 450 today.

In the maternity ward, a ray of sunlight shines through a small hole where a stray bullet pierced the metal roof before striking the floor a metre away from the head midwife's desk.

"What we see here is the result of the last 30 or 40 years," one humanitarian worker said. "The security situation is not going to improve radically while there are still weapons all over the place."

Zenaba Mahamat has lived in a makeshift shelter on the grounds of PK5's central mosque since the end of 2013 when anti-balaka militiamen drove the Muslims out of her Bangui neighbourhood.

"I don't have a husband anymore. And they slit the throat of my first son," she said, as she roasted a pot of sesame seeds over a fire. "We never even got to see his body."

Tired of fighting

She hopes she will someday be able to return home, but does not know when.

"They told us they didn't want Muslims there anymore," Mahamat said.

Across town, 3,700 people who have sought refuge at the Saint Sauver Catholic church are equally tired of the fighting.

But parish priest Marc Belikassa, who has worked for years to foster dialogue between Christians and Muslims, was sanguine about the pope's chances of long-term success.

"He'll come, and his message to maintain durable peace and avoid spilling blood will be felt in each of our the hearts. But every Central African man and woman must sit down together to discuss our country's future," he said.

"The pope isn't a magician."

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