Pope Francis has completed his two-day visit to the Central African Republic, the final stop of his first African tour, which also took him to Kenya and Uganda.
Among the three countries visited by the Pope, his stop in CAR was by far the most challenging and attracted lots of attention.
The country, ravaged by a three-year crisis, is struggling to overcome divisions between Christians and Muslims. During his stay, under tight security, the Pope preached peace.
“Christians and Muslims are brothers, and we must say no to vengeance, violence and hatred,” he said on 30 November at the Central Mosque in the PK5 Muslim enclave of Bangui, considered a “no-go zone” for non-Christians.
The day before, the Pope had visited a refugee camp in the Catholic parish of Saint Saviour. In front of over 3,700 people – mainly Christians – he preached forgiveness: “We want peace. There is no peace without forgiveness, without tolerance. Regardless of ethnicity, social status, we are all brothers,” he said.
His meeting with Evangelical Christians was another highlight of his stay in CAR. Speaking to the leaders of Evangelical churches gathered at FATEB (the Evangelical School of Theology), the Pope’s speech focused on unity, mutual respect and collaboration.
“For all too long, your people have experienced troubles and violence, resulting in great suffering. This makes the proclamation of the Gospel all the more necessary and urgent,” he said. “God makes no distinctions between those who suffer. I have often called this the ecumenism of blood. All our communities suffer indiscriminately as a result of injustice and the blind hatred unleashed by the devil.”
Catholics and Protestants have paid a heavy price in the recent conflict, with dozens of clerics killed and an undetermined number of properties, including churches, defaced and ransacked – mostly by mainly Muslim Séléka rebels.
The resurgence of violence targeting Christians has led church leaders to speak out against Séléka, denouncing a “rebellion characterised by religious extremism, by evil intentions for the programmed and planned desecration and destruction of Christian buildings, and in particular Catholic and Protestant churches”.
In Oct. 2013, more than 100 church leaders issued a joint declaration accusing the Séléka rebel coalition of killing pastors, raping nuns, torturing civilians, burning villages, destroying churches and looting property. Catholic and Protestant clerics also demanded an “immediate deployment” of UN forces to restore peace in the Central African Republic.
But as Séléka’s influence waned, following the resignation of their leader, and the rebels retreated to the north, local Muslims perceived as accomplices of Séléka faced attacks by self-defence militias known as Anti-Balaka (“Anti-Machete”). The confrontation between Séléka and Anti-Balaka created a cycle of reprisals in which the civilian population has fallen victim.
On 4 Feb., 2014, church leaders reiterated their opposition to the violence in their country and demanded more troops on the ground, in a joint declaration signed by four prominent church leaders, including Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, President of the Evangelical Alliance, and Catholic Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaigna, President of the Episcopal Conference.
In his address, Pope Francis also expressed his compassion for Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, who escaped an assassination attempt, as the capital, Bangui, saw a renewed wave of violence in September.
“Here I wish to express my closeness and solidarity to Pastor Nicolas, whose home was recently ransacked and set on fire, as was the meeting place of his community,” said the Pope.
Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou has played a key role in the efforts to quell interreligious tension. His commitment has led to the creation of an interreligious platform which includes the President of the Islamic Community in CAR, Imam Kobine Layama, and the Archbishop of Bangui, Mgr. Dieudonné Nzapalainga. On 1 December, the trio were awarded a new distinction, the Grand Office of National Order, by transitional leader Catherine Samba-Panza.
Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou and his family have faced other dramatic episodes during the three-year conflict. In January 2014, Guérékoyamé-Gbangou was absent, travelling in Europe, when his sick daughter, Mélène, 35, died.
In August 2013, the pastor was arrested following comments he made about the government. Despite being a Member of the National Transitional Council (NTC), an acting parliament set up after the 2012 military coup (which apparently granted him immunity), he was put in prison.
In his address to Pope Francis, the pastor said he has been particularly touched by the Pope’s visit, which comes as the country is engaged in a democratic process aimed at putting an end to the political transition. For this reason, he said, the visit has lots of significance and raises the prospect of seeing the country regaining normal life.
Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou has also called for pontifical support to deal with some major concerns faced by the CAR. This includes the disarmament of armed groups and the restoration of the national army.