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Pope Francis Brings Message Of Peace To Central African Republic


Pope Francis visited a mosque today. He is not the first pope to visit a Muslim house of worship, but he is the first to visit one that at the time was blockaded by Christian militia. Today, Francis met with the Muslim community of Bangui, which is the capital of the Central African Republic. Most of the city's Muslims have fled in the past year because of sectarian violence. Their neighborhood is still ringed by Christian fighters. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope. And, Sylvia, what was this visit to the mosque like?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, it was the riskiest event of his Africa trip, just coming to the Central African Republic, you know, was already braving security risks. And going to this enclave was even more so. It's called PK5. It's surrounded by Christian militias who blocked supplies from entering the area and Muslim residents from leaving it. Today, there were no Christian militias to be seen, but the entire area was packed with heavily armed U.N. peacekeepers. They're the blue helmets; big, white U.N. tanks in the streets, blocking roads. It's ordinary traffic, shuttered shops, empty market stalls. And armed U.N. soldiers were even perched on the few minarets of the mosque. In the mosque, the pope addressed the imam and the faithful in the mosque as dear brothers. He said Christians and Muslims are brothers. And we know that the latest cases of violence that have shaken this country are not sparked by real religious motives.

He also stressed that many individual Christians and Muslims have shown solidarity and generosity towards each other. In fact, around the mosque, several tents have been set up to shelter many of the people displaced by the fighting. And they're both Christians and Muslims staying there. And before leaving, Pope Francis and the imams stood together in silence for a few minutes at the mihrab, the place in the mosque that faces Mecca.

INSKEEP: What is the divide in the Central African Republic that prompted Christian militias to surround that Muslim neighborhood?

POGGIOLI: Well, the background of this is that in 2013 Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the Christian president. That led to a period of authoritarian rule. They call it the backlash against Muslims. An interim leader was chosen. But the fighting has escalated into sectarian conflict. And each of these militias have committed atrocities against the other.

INSKEEP: We should mention Sylvia Poggioli is on a phone line that's a little difficult to hear because she is in a soccer stadium where Pope Francis is celebrating a mass today. What is the mood like where you are, Sylvia?

POGGIOLI: Oh, it's euphoric. I think you probably can hear some of it. It's a - there's been wonderful music, dancing, tremendous enthusiasm for Pope Francis and great excitement among the people that have been pretty depressed of late. I saw nuns and bishops and priests swaying to the music. It's a very exuberant crowd.

INSKEEP: What is the larger symbolism when a pope visits Africa like this?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think, you know, this papal trip to Africa really sums up the Francis papacy in a nutshell. He's the champion of the poor and marginalized. He's come out to see these people in the peripheries. He's doing what he tells priests to do - go out and listen to your flock and acquire the smell of the sheep. The themes he's been pushing on this trip are the closest to his heart - interfaith dialogue, forgiveness, social justice, reconciliation and mercy. And I think, you know, the fact that he is from the global South - these are his brothers in the global South. I think Catholics and non-Catholics alike really clicked with Francis.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: She is in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic where Pope Francis's visit today included a trip to a mosque. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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