Who in their right mind would go into a conflict zone in the Central African Republic, which is verging on the edge of civil war, or as the United Nations had warned, even of genocide?
Pope Francis, of course.
Francis is very concerned that the violence of extremist religious fundamentalists does not spread in Africa, and took his message of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and solidarity to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. He melds these themes into his advocacy to address global warming and to eradicate poverty and hunger, as he did in his encyclical Laudato Si’.
Speaking on 26 November at the UN headquarters in Nairobi Kenya, he stressed the need for a new development model based on “principles of solidarity, justice, equality, and participation”, which would help us care for creation, avoid “catastrophic” climate change, fight poverty and “ensure respect for human dignity”. Among other major concerns, he made specific mention of health care, access to medicines, and intellectual property agreements.
At an interreligious and ecumenical meeting the same day in Nairobi Kenya, Francis said that God’s “holy Name must never be used to justify hatred and violence”. He lamented the radicalisation of some young people. “How important it is that we be seen as prophets of peace, peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony, and mutual respect! Interreligious dialogue is not something extra or optional, but essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.” He expressed his esteem for the followers of all religions, essential in “forming consciences, instilling in the young the profound spiritual values of our respective traditions, and training good citizens”.
In Nairobi’s huge Kangemi slum on 27 November, Francis expressed his admiration for the culture of solidarity and sharing among the poor, values with “no market price”, but also denounced the injustices they suffered at the hands of “minorities who cling to power and wealth”, the unjust distribution of land, and lack of basic services. He urged the people to commit themselves “to ensuring that every family has dignified housing, access to drinking water, a toilet, reliable sources of energy for light, cooking, and improving their homes”, along with hospitals, sport, recreation, and art.
Central African Republic
Despite the high security risks, Francis insisted on visiting the Central African Republic, in an effort to help avert further bloodshed. The country of 4.5 million people gained independence from France in 1960, but remains one of the poorest in the world. For two years, a war between the majority Muslim Séléka forces and the majority Christian anti-Balaka has caused tens of thousands of people to flee to neighbouring countries, and displaced a million internally.
After visiting the presidential palace in the capital, Bangui, on 29 November 2015, Francis went straight to the St Sauveur Refugee camp, holding almost 4000 refugees sheltering from the violence. He reiterated, “Peace without love, without friendship, without tolerance, without forgiveness, is not possible”. He urged the people present to repeat after him a number of times: “We are all brothers”.
He continued in this vein at the Mass in Bangui Cathedral that day, concluding with an appeal to all “who make unjust use of the weapons of this world … : lay down these instruments of death! Arm yourselves instead with righteousness, with love and mercy, the authentic guarantors of peace”.
At the Evangelical Faculty of Theology of Bangui, Francis said all present were assembled by the risen Lord, and “by virtue of the common baptism we have received, we are sent to proclaim the joy of the Gospel to men and women” of Central Africa. He said “God makes no distinctions between those who suffer. I have often called this the ecumenism of blood.”
Under very heavy security, Francis celebrated Mass at the Berthélémy Boganda Stadium in Bangui the following morning, urging the 30,000 Catholics present to hold fast to their faith in such difficult times, saying that Christ was inviting them to cross over to “another shore”, the hope of eternal life, which “is not a flight from the world. It is a powerful reality which calls out to us” and “even now is transforming our lives and the world around us”. He urged them to be “artisans of the human and spiritual renewal” of their country.
Francis in Bangui mosque
The most dramatic event was Francis’ 30 November visit to the Koudoukou mosque in Bangui. Some 15,000 Muslims were concentrated around the mosque as they were surrounded by hostile Christian militias intent on driving out the Muslims. More than 100,000 Muslims had fled the fighting in the district.
Francis was welcomed by Imam Tidiani Moussa Naibi, and Pope Francis invited him into the popemobile, making a circuit of the small stadium.
Francis recognised that recent acts of violence had shaken the country, but denied they were “grounded in properly religious motives”.
“Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace. Christians, Muslims, and members of the traditional religions have lived together in peace for many years. They ought, therefore, to remain united in working for an end to every act which, from whatever side, disfigures the Face of God and whose ultimate aim is to defend particular interests by any and all means, to the detriment of the common good. Together, we must say ‘no’ to hatred, to revenge, and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself. God is peace, salam.”
He thanked the Christian and Muslim leaders working to reestablish harmony and fraternity among the people, and recalled “the many acts of solidarity which Christians and Muslims have shown with regard to their fellow citizens of other religious confessions”.
Francis, as Bishop of Rome, is proposing an urgent but extraordinarily hopeful agenda for Christians, indeed for all believers and non-believers alike.