Pope Francis embarks on his most dangerous trip yet when he arrives today in Central African Republic (CAR), a former French colony riven by ethnic and religious conflict. The visit will be the last leg of the pope’s first African tour, which has also included Kenya and Uganda, and will be the first by a pope to a war zone.
Pope Francis said Mass for a crowd of 100,000 on a hill in Namugongo, 10 miles outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala. He paid tribute to 19th-century Christian martyrs, who historians say were targeted after protecting young boys in the royal court from abuse by the king.
Gay activists had been hoping the Pope would speak out against homophobia in the country of 14.1 million Catholics, where homosexuality is punishable by life in prison.
Pope Francis arrives at Namugongo Martyrs' Shrine in Uganda
Security permitting, the pontiff will visit the mosque in PK5, a besieged Muslim enclave in Bangui that is emerging as a faultline of the conflict in the CAR capital amid mounting evidence of atrocities around the country, including “witch” lynchings, burning of villages, rape and killings.
Scores of people have died in the latest round of tit-for-tat violence that started in September, aid agencies say. In more than two years, the conflict has left thousands of civilians dead, and nearly half a million uprooted from their homes.
Fighting began when the Seleka, a mainly Muslim rebel group, staged a coup in 2013, installing a Muslim president and terrorising Christians. Christian forces, known as the anti-balaka, launched reprisals.
The conflict has effectively torn the country in two. The minority Muslim population is increasingly confined to enclaves such as PK5, where 130,000 Muslims once lived, but only 15,000 remain. Christian militias have set up barricades in an attempt to stop supplies from going in, and Muslims from coming out.
“Nobody can leave PK5 … without being stoned, kidnapped or killed by armed groups,” Aziza, a young Muslim, told Agence France Presse. Both sides have committed atrocities which the 12,000 UN peacekeepers have been too thinly spread to prevent. A chilling reminder of this came in a leaked UN report last week documenting the burning of “witches” by Christian militias earlier this year, allowing rebels to raise funds by extorting bribes from victims in exchange for their lives.