BANGUI, Central African Republic — After landing in the war-torn Central African Republic, Pope Francis urged the country’s leaders to work for peace and reconciliation, particularly through disarmament and a stable administration.
“As the Central African Republic progressively moves, in spite of difficulties, towards the normalization of its social and political life…I come as a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope,” the Pope said Nov. 29.
He praised the efforts made by both national and international authorities in working to find a solution to current tensions, and expressed his hope that the country’s coming elections would allow the CAR “to embark serenely on new chapter of its history.”
Pope Francis landed in the Central African capitol of Bangui the morning of Nov. 29. His Nov. 29-30 visit to CAR comes at the end of a larger tour of the African continent that also took him to Kenya and Uganda, and falls just one month ahead of the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
The CAR is the riskiest trip Francis has made since becoming pope in 2013. It marks the first time he steps into an active warzone.
The majority of tensions 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, uncertainty and violence have swept over the country in a conflict that has so far left some 6,000 people dead.
The country will hold both presidential and parliamentary elections Dec. 27, after they were postponed in October due to violence and instability. Interim president Catherine Samba-Panza, who has so far struggled to keep peace, will not be a candidate.
The last pontiff to visit the CAR was St. John Paul II in 1985, as part of a larger trip to Togo, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Zaire and Kenya.
In his remarks to the country’s authorities, Francis recalled the Central African motto “unity-dignity-labor,” which he said is a “sure compass” by which the authorities can guide the future of the country.
The Pope said unity is a cardinal virtue in maintaining harmony among peoples, and must be built on diversity while avoiding the temptation “of fear of others, of the unfamiliar, of what is not part of our ethnic group, our political views or our religious confession.”
Rather than fear, unity “calls for creating and promoting a synthesis of the richness which each person has to offer.”
Francis also spoke on the importance of upholding the dignity of each person, and referred to the Central African axiom “Zo kwe zo,” meaning that in the country “everybody is somebody.”
“Each person has dignity,” he said, explaining that everything possible must be done in order to protect the dignity and status of the human person.
Part of upholding this dignity means that those who enjoy decent living look for ways to help the poor attain better living conditions rather than seeking privileges for themselves, he said, noting the importance of access to education, healthcare, decent housing and the fight against malnutrition.
Pope Francis also spoke on the importance of labor, and encouraged Central Africans to make wise use of the country’s resources, particularly its rich biodiversity.
He stressed the need for public authorities to maintain “upright conduct and administration,” in their duties. They must be “the first to embody consistently the values of unity, dignity and labor, serving as models for their compatriots,” he said.
Calling to mind the role of evangelization in the country, Francis greeted his brother bishops, and assured the Church’s closeness in promoting the common good, particularly through efforts toward peace and reconciliation.
The Pope closed by encouraging both the international community as well as local authorities to work for solidarity and the advancement of the country, “especially in the areas of reconciliation, disarmament, peacekeeping, health care and the cultivation of a sound administration at all levels.”
He praised the CAR’s natural and cultural richness, and prayed that the people Central Africa as well as its leaders and partners, would “always appreciate the value of these gifts by working ceaselessly for unity, human dignity and a peace based on justice.”
In a symbolic gesture, Pope Francis is set to jump-start the Jubilee of Mercy by opening the diocese of Bangui’s Holy Door during Mass the evening of Nov. 29.
Though the Jubilee for Mercy doesn’t begin until Dec. 8, Pope Francis has 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.