Pope Francis urges unity among Christians & Muslims in African warzone: 'God is peace, God salam'

by Kelly Ledbetter |

(REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)Pope Francis (R) sits next to Tidiani Moussa Naibi, Imam of the Koudoukou Mosque in Bangui, Central African Republic, November 30, 2015.

BANGUI, Central African Republic (Christian Examiner) – Marking his first visit to the African continent and any pope's first visit to an active warzone, Pope Francis addressed a besieged mosque in the enclosed Muslim neighborhood PK5 of the capital city of the Central African Republic (CAR) on Nov. 30, charging all those who believe in God to end religious conflict.

"Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters," said Pope Francis, according to Vatican Radio. "We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such. We are well aware that the recent events and acts of violence which have shaken your country were not grounded in properly religious motives. Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace."

Led by the mosque's grand imam, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, the Muslim community of the Grand Mosque of Koudoukou welcomed the Pope, who also visited Kenya and Uganda on his African tour.

"Together, we must say no to hatred, no to revenge and no to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself," Pope Francis said. "God is peace, God salam," he said, using the Arabic word for peace.

HIGH SECURITY

The pope rode through the streets of Bangui in an open-air vehicle, standing and waving at the people who ran alongside his procession.

CAR designated 500 police or security to guard him, augmented by about 3,000 United Nations peacekeepers and several hundred French troops, Reuters reported, in what is one of the most secure visits the pope has ever taken.

"In these dramatic times, Christian and Muslim leaders have sought to rise to the challenges of the moment," said Pope Francis, who was determined to visit CAR no matter how dangerous it was. "They have played an important role in re-establishing harmony and fraternity among all. I would like express my gratitude and appreciation for this."

The chief imam at the mosque welcomed the pope and called his visit "a symbol which we all understand," according to FOX News.

The PK5 neighborhood, where the mosque the pope visited is located, has been surrounded by a blockade of Christian militia for months.

Pope Francis laid his hands on the heads of children and people displaced by violence in the capital city, which has seen over 100 deaths since September, Reuters reported. He met with Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious leaders in the country that has endured civil war since December 2012.

The conflict has killed about 6,000 people and displaced about 400,000 across national borders and 300,000 internally, which constitutes a quarter of the population, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Attempts to quell the conflict between the Muslim and the Christian factions has been a struggle for the transitional government, which held a national forum in May.

HOPES FOR PEACE

Pope Francis spoke specifically about his hopes for continued facilitation of dialogue, rather than combat, within the country. "The Central African Republic, situated in the heart of Africa, with the cooperation of all her sons and daughters, will then prove a stimulus in this regard to the entire continent."

Bangui used to be home to about 120,000 Muslims, but now has only around 15,000, according to Human Rights Watch.

On Sunday before holding mass, the Pope opened the door of Bangui's cathedral, a symbol of welcome and openness to peace.

The pope encouraged CAR to be "a positive influence" in order to help Africans achieve the "development which they deserve and to which they have a right."

At the end of his address to listeners at the Grand Mosque of Koudoukou, Pope Francis called for "reconciliation, fraternity and solidarity among all people, without forgetting those who have suffered the most as a result of recent events."

He blessed the people of CAR: "May God bless you and protect you! Salam alaikum!" he said.

Bangui was the pope's final stop in Africa.