Pope to end Africa trip with mosque visit in besieged enclave

Pope Francis during his visit to Kenya in November 2015. PHOTO: File

Pope Francis, ending a three-nation African tour, on Monday visits a mosque in a besieged Muslim enclave in Central African Republic’s capital in an effort to bridge the religious divide in a nation racked by three years of violence.

Healing rifts between Christian and Muslim communities has been a theme throughout Francis’ first visit to the continent, which has also taken him to Kenya and Uganda.

However, nowhere is his call for peace and reconciliation more pressing than in Central African Republic, where thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in clashes that have split the country along religious lines.

The pontiff’s two-day visit to the former French colony has meant unprecedented security measures and takes place amid a surge in violence.

Tit-for-tat killings in and around the tiny PK5 enclave in the capital Bangui, one of the most dangerous parts of the city, have claimed at least 100 lives since late September, according to Human Rights Watch.

PK5, where most of the Muslims who have not fled the city have now sought refuge, has been cut off from the rest of the capital, Bangui, for the past two months.

On Monday, the pope is due to cross a tense 300-metre no-man’s-land where so-called anti-balaka Christian militias block supplies from entering and Muslims from leaving.

“We’re living in an open-air prison,” Ahmadou Tidjane Moussa Naibi, the imam at the mosque Francis is due to visit, said earlier this week.

“We’re deprived of everything. We don’t have access to the hospital. We don’t have access to education. We don’t even have access to our cemeteries,” he said.

Both the Christian majority and minority Muslims have welcomed the pope’s visit, hoping he can spur renewed dialogue and help restore peace.

Francis on Sunday visited a camp in Bangui and told its nearly 4,000 residents, most of whom were chased from their homes by armed Muslims, that “peace without love, friendship and tolerance is nothing.”

Central African Republic’s United Nations peacekeeping mission brought in additional forces and has deployed over 3,000 soldiers in an attempt to secure the city during the pope’s visit. The government is also contributing around 500 police and gendarmes. French troops based in Bangui are also on alert.

Pope Francis wraps up his tour with a Mass for tens of thousands of Catholics at the country’s national stadium before returning to Rome.

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