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November 17, 2017
Will Pope Francis visit the fragile Central African Republic later this year?
Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui blesses an ex-Seleka figher at Camp Beal. Credit: Archdiocese of Bangui. Photo courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need.
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.- The Archbishop of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, said on Thursday that Pope Francis will visit his country in November. The Pope has expressed his desire to visit the nation, which has been engaged in a civil war for more than two years, but the Holy See says nothing is yet official.

Armed conflict broke out in CAR in December 2012, and the country has since been gripped by violence between the mostly Muslim and foreign Seleka, and the largely Christian anti-balaka.

In a March 12 interview, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that Pope Francis will visit CAR this November, saying, “The papal visit is a sign of the goodness of God and a consolation. He is coming to us as a father – and precisely at a moment when we have just been through a long crisis that has left deep scars.”

“I am hoping that it will bring new strength to the people of the Central African Republic. The message of life that the Pope will bring with him is a message of peace and reconciliation. That’s precisely what our country so urgently needs.”

CNA contacted Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Holy See press officer, about the news.

Fr. Lombardi responded March 13 that “there is nothing official. The opportunity to go to Central African Republic is currently being considered.”

“However, I would stress that the Pope expressed the wish to go to Central African Republic during the press conference in the flight back from Philippines,” he added.

On his Jan. 19 flight, Pope Francis had responded to a question about visiting Africa, saying: “I will respond hypothetically. The plan is to go to the Central African Republic and Uganda. These two, this year. I think that this will be towards the end of the year, because of the weather.”

Violence broke out in CAR in December 2012. Seleka rebels, loosely organized groups that drew primarily Muslim fighters from other countries, ousted the president and installed their own leader in a March 2013 coup.

In September 2013, after 10 months of terrorism at the hands of the Seleka, anti-balaka self-defense groups began to form. The conflict in the nation took on a sectarian character, as some anti-balaka, many of whom are Christian, began attacking Muslims out of revenge for the Seleka’s acts.

“Both sides have committed terrible crimes, have murdered, raped, destroyed churches and mosques, and entire villages,” Archbishop Nzapalainga lamented in his interview with Aid to the Church in Need.

As the conflict continued, it crossed political, tribal, and religious groups, leaving thousands dead and more than 1 million displaced.

Despite the implementation of a transitional government in January 2014 and the presence of international peacekeeping forces, the country has yet to achieve lasting peace and stability.

Archbishop Nzapalainga said that “the peacekeeping troops have succeeded in bringing a measure of calm to our country. In Bangui, in particular, we hardly see any more armed fighters on the streets.”

While there are fewer armed fighters in Bangui, he reported that the city remains host to more than 30,000 displaced persons “living in refugee camps, at the airport, in various different Catholic churches and also in the central mosque … they are living in oppressive conditions. They are still deeply traumatized and fearful. Many cannot return home, because their houses have been destroyed. The children cannot get to school, while for the men and women there is no work.”

Since April 2014, foreign peacekeepers have been in CAR from the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations.

“The withdrawal of the European peacekeeping troops – who restored order above all in the Muslim quarters of Bangui – is set to start March 15. I appeal to the world community to keep these troops here,” Archbishop Nzapalainga stated.

David Smith, an analyst who specializes in CAR, told Deutsche Welle this month that “the country is still not at peace, even though over the last 20 years there have been numerous peacekeeping operations that have temporarily brought about peace.”

Assessing the progress made by peacekeepers, the U.N. estimated in March that from a high of more than 1.1 million persons displaced from their homes, now only 630,000 remain displaced.

Archbishop Nzapalainga continued: “I sometimes compare the Central African Republic with a sick man. The peace troops are like a doctor who has restored our country to the status of a convalescent. But I fear that violence will break out again when the U.N. troops leave.”

Already delayed, elections are scheduled for July and August. Yet according to Bloomberg News, the transitional government “has failed to extend its authority beyond Bangui,” and the country is divided between anti-balaka zones in the west, and Seleka-controlled areas in the east.

Archbishop Nzapalainga affirmed that “at the moment there is no possibility of free elections in our country. People are still too deeply fearful and there is still widespread mistrust.”

“The first priority must be security, and the disarming of the rebels. The only answer to the violence is dialogue. And we need the world’s prayers.”