Pope Francis Heads to Central African Republic Amid Security Fears

The U.N. is mobilizing 3,000 peacekeepers to protect Pope Francis. Can his message of reconciliation help heal the war-torn nation?

People walk by a billboard welcoming Pope Francis ahead of his visit in Bangui on November 25, 2015. Pope Francis on November 25 warned of the need to tackle poverty as a key driver of conflict and violence as he kicked off a landmark Africa trip fraught with security concerns. AFP PHOTO / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA        (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
People walk by a billboard welcoming Pope Francis ahead of his visit in Bangui on November 25, 2015. Pope Francis on November 25 warned of the need to tackle poverty as a key driver of conflict and violence as he kicked off a landmark Africa trip fraught with security concerns. AFP PHOTO / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Two months after rival militant groups fought running gun battles in the streets, displacing thousands and leaving scores dead, the crumbling riverside capital of the Central African Republic is getting a makeover ahead of a much-anticipated visit from Pope Francis Sunday.

Men are busy fixing roads and filling potholes. Street vendors are stocking up on religious trinkets. And a wooden stage is going up next to the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral, where Pope Francis has said he will open a special door to “manifest the prayerful closeness of the entire Church to this afflicted and tormented nation.”

The third leg of a six-day Africa swing that included stops in Kenya and Uganda, the pope’s arrival in CAR on Sunday will come at a time of heightened sectarian tensions and sporadic violence. Nearly three years after a coup plunged the Central African nation into a cycle of brutal reprisal killings, rival militant groups still control vast swaths of the country. Largely Muslim rebels known as ex-Seleka are the dominant force in the northeast, whereas Christian anti-Balaka militants hold sway in the southwest.

Roughly 6,000 people have been killed and 800,000 displaced since late 2012.

The pope is expected to meet with Muslim and Christian leaders to encourage inter-faith dialogue and to lead mass in a 20,000-seat stadium in Bangui. In a video addressed to the people of CAR released on Monday, Francis said the main goal of his trip is to deliver “the comfort of consolation and hope.”

“I hope with all my heart that my visit may contribute, in one way or another, to alleviate your wounds and to favor conditions for a better, more serene future for Central Africa and all its inhabitants,” he said.

While few expect a miracle from the man who leads 1.3 billion Catholics around the world, religious leaders on both sides of the conflict have been broadly supportive of the papal visit. Some, including Muslims who were the victims of what the U.N. called an ethnic cleansing at the hands of Christian anti-Balaka militants, have expressed hope that Francis will help kindle desperately needed national reconciliation.

“Obviously we are happy to welcome the pope,” said Ahmadou Tidjani Moussa Naibi, the imam at the Central Mosque in PK5, one of the last remaining Muslim strongholds in the capital, in an interview. “We really hope — and have no doubt — that he will come here to PK5. This is extremely important for social cohesion.”

Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of Bangui, expressed a similar hope. “It could be a catalyst [for peace] if people are preparing, if they agree to leave their hatred behind, if they agree to forgive, to examine their conscience,” he told Foreign Policy.

But without that kind of collective introspection, Nzapalainga cautioned, “the pope’s visit will be only symbolic. It will give rise to nothing.”

If Francis’s visit promises to inspire a moment of national healing, it also threatens to turn into a security nightmare for those charged with keeping the pontiff safe. French troops, in CAR to support a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission, have said they cannot protect the pope outside the airport. Officials from the French Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, reportedly asked the Vatican to postpone or shorten Francis’s visit.

“We’ve let the pope know his arrival in the CAR will carry high risks for himself, and particularly for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims coming from Cameroon, Chad, and the Congo,” an unnamed French Defense Ministry official told Agence France-Presse. “Our own forces can secure the airport and provide a medical evacuation capacity for the authorities in case of an accident. But they cannot go any further.”

The job of protecting the 78-year-old pontiff will fall primarily on the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known by the French acronym MINUSCA, which plans to mobilize a total of 3,000 blue helmets as a part of the papal security detail.

“We have scheduled more than three thousand men to secure the pope’s visit,” Gen. Bala Keita, the MINUSCA force commander, told Foreign Policy. “The capital will be under constant air surveillance from helicopter with the U.N. forces and from [French] helicopters.”

National police and gendarmes will also be deployed to the capital ahead of Francis’s visit, but officials worry that lack of equipment and training could limit their effectiveness in the event of a security breach.

“When you see gendarmes and policemen patrolling with only protection shields, with weapons but without ammunition and sometimes without protective vests, do you think this is called being equipped for policing?” asked Chrysostom Sambia, CAR’s minister for public safety. “We must not forget that we are facing an urban guerrilla [threat.] Shields are good for tomatoes and stone throwing. If anything escalates, the police will have to use their bare hands.”

The pope is scheduled to arrive in the wake of fierce sectarian clashes that killed at least 77 people in September and ahead of elections, scheduled for December, which could precipitate additional violence. Yet Francis has said he will not wear a bulletproof vest or ride in an armored vehicle. His security team made a special trip to CAR to assess the threat level ahead of his arrival, and Vatican officials have warned that the pope’s itinerary could change at the last minute.

In general, Francis has taken fewer security precautions than many of his predecessors, ditching the bulletproof popemobile for open-top vehicles and mingling freely with often unruly crowds of well-wishers. On a trip to Brazil in 2013, adoring crowds overwhelmed his security detail and forced his motorcade to a stop. The pope calmly rolled down the window of his silver Fiat and set about blessing those who reached inside.

“It’s true that anything could happen, but let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose,” Francis told a Spanish newspaper in 2014.

The six-day visit to Africa is the pope’s first to the continent, which is home to the fastest-growing Catholic population on Earth. Africa also pays a disproportionate price for many of the blights Francis has worked assiduously to end: sectarian violence, poverty, and climate change are often interconnected in Africa. This is particularly true in CAR, where sectarian tensions have risen in part because of the changing migration patterns of poor pastoralists.

Anthony Fouchard reported from Bangui. Ty McCormick reported from New York.

Photo credit: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / Staff

Anthony Fouchard is a French journalist covering Africa.
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