Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov 29, 2015 / 08:12 am
Pope Francis' first stop after arriving in the Central African Republic Sunday was to a refugee camp housing thousands of persons displaced by the country's ongoing conflict.
Upon his arrival at the camp Nov. 29, the Pope was greeted by children living there, who held up signs displaying words such as "peace," "love," "unity," and "pardon."
After greeting the children, Francis made his way through the camp before speaking briefly off-the-cuff to its inhabitants.
"I saw what the children have written (on the signs)," he said, explaining that "we must work and pray; do everything (possible) for peace."
However, he cautioned that "peace without love, without friendship, without tolerance, without forgiveness, isn't possible. Each one of us must do something."
The Pope then expressed his desire that all Central Africans would have "great peace among you … regardless of ethnicity, culture, religion, or social status."
Located at the parish of St. Sauveur in Bangui, the camp is home to 1,000-2,000 people displaced by violence and conflict.
Pope Francis' Nov. 29-30 visit to the Central African Republic comes at the end of a larger tour of the African continent. Before arriving, he also visited Kenya and Uganda.
The stop in CAR also marks the first time since his election that Francis has set foot in an active war-zone. The conflict, which has largely religious and ethnic roots, has so far left some 6,000 dead, and many thousands of persons displaced.
Armed conflict began in late 2012 when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed an alliance, taking the name Seleka. They left their strongholds in the north of the country and made their way south, seizing power from then-president Francois Bozize.
Since then, fear and uncertainty have gripped the nation, and the country's current leadership has struggled to maintain peace, leading ordinary citizens to take up arms.
The fighting has been compounded by the fact that Christians were being targeted once the rebels launched their offensive, leading to anti-Muslim sentiments and revenge attacks on Muslims.
At a Nov. 19 press briefing, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis is visiting CAR precisely "to show that he's close to the people who suffer."
This, he said, is also why the refugee camp was Francis' first stop after meeting the authorities.
In his comments to the refugees, Pope Francis stressed that no matter their religious or ethnic background, everyone must be in peace, "everyone! Because we are all brothers."
He asked those present to repeat it aloud, noting that "because we are all brothers, we want peace." He then gave them his blessing and asked for their prayers before heading to the apostolic nunciature for a private meeting with the country's bishops.
In another symbolic gesture, Pope Francis is set to jump-start the Jubilee of Mercy by opening the Archdiocese of Bangui's Holy Door during Mass at their cathedral the evening of Nov. 29.
Though the Jubilee for Mercy doesn't begin until Dec. 8, Francis announced earlier this month that he decided to open the Holy Door in the Central African Republic's capital 10 days early as a sign of prayer and solidarity with the war-torn nation.