Bangui—Pope Francis was given a tremendous welcome by tens of thousands of Central Africans when he arrived in this conflict-torn land on Sunday morning, Nov. 29, on a mission to promote peace and reconciliation.
Countless women, children, young men and women, and the elderly, even whole families turned out to cheer, dance and shout their intense joy and welcome him as he drove along the road—for 9 km in the popemobile—from the airport to the presidential palace. UN tanks and members of the international police and military forces under its coordination guarded the entire route. His visit is considered a high risk, so the security was intense.
One could see the immense joy and happiness in the eyes of these people at his coming among them. Their desire for peace was palpable even to us journalists travelling on a bus under UN escort. Many waved olive branches. They are placing enormous hope on him, they believe that he can bring peace and change their lives. Indeed when he visited a refugee camp of almost 4,000 people, mainly women and children, they shouted out “For us today, the war is over.”
“I come as a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope,” Pope Francis said at the Presidential Palace, in his first speech in this country an hour after arriving here from Uganda.
He was welcomed by Catherine Samba-Panza, the Interim President, on arrival in Bangui, capital of the conflict torn Central African Republic, on Nov. 29, who asked forgiveness for all the sins of this country and expressed deep gratitude for his courage and determination in coming to help them.
“I am happy to be here with you,” he told the Interim Head of State, and extended through her his “affection” for, and “spiritual closeness” to all the citizens of this deeply troubled country of 4.5 million people, which gained its independence from France in 1960.
“As the Central African Republic progressively moves, in spite of difficulties, towards the normalization of its social and political life, I come to this land for the first time, following my predecessor Saint John Paul II. I come as a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope,” he stated.
He went onto express his “appreciation of the efforts made by the different national and international authorities, beginning with Madam Interim Head of State, to guide the country to this point.”
He expressed his “fervent wish” that “the various national consultations” scheduled to be held in the coming weeks “will enable the country to embark serenely on new chapter of its history.”
One of these is the election for president that is to take place on Dec. 27, and on eve of the pope’s visit here all the candidates for that important position have agreed that they will respect each other and see each other as rivals, not as enemies, according to a communiqué from the Sant’Egidio community that are engaged in the effort to bring peace here.
Looking ahead, Pope Francis said “the motto” of the CAR—“Unity-Dignity-Labour”—actually “expresses the aspirations of each Central African.” But it is also “a sure compass for the authorities called to guide the destiny of the country.” Those three words constitute both “a building project” and “an unending program,” he said.
He spelled out the content of each word. He described “unity” as “a cardinal value for the harmony of peoples” which has to built on basis of “the marvelous diversity” in the country, and “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.”
He acknowledged that “unity in diversity is a constant challenge” that “demands creativity, generosity, self-sacrifice and respect for others.”
Speaking of “dignity, he said this “moral value” is “synonymous with the honesty, loyalty, graciousness and honor which characterize men and women conscious of their rights and duties, and which lead them to mutual respect.” He emphasized that “everything must be done to protect the status and dignity of the human person” and means that those who are enjoying “a decent life” must “seek to help those poorer than themselves to attain dignified living conditions,” including access to education, health care and decent housing.
Then turning to "labor"—which is a major issue in this country with sky-high levels of unemployment—Francis emphasized the importance of work for improving the lives of families. In this context he pointed to the fact that this country has “many resources” that can be “wisely exploited,” while its “exceptionally rich” biodiversity must be protected.
Here touching on a very important issue, he drew the attention “of everyone, citizens and national leaders, international partners and multinational societies, to their grave responsibility in making use of environmental resources, in development decisions and projects which in any way affect the entire planet.”
He insisted that “the work of building a prosperous society must be a cooperative effort,” and here he emphasized “the capital importance of upright conduct and administration on the part of public authorities.” He said these authorities “must be the first to embody consistently the values of unity, dignity and labor, serving as models for their compatriots.”
He promised the full support of the local Catholic Church in “promoting the values of unity, dignity and labor,” and “to contribute even more to the promotion of the common good, particularly by working for peace and reconciliation.”
His words were significant given that 63 percent of the population are Christian (37.3 percent are Catholic, 16 percent Protestant), 15 percent are Muslim and 20 percent are Traditional Religion.
Francis went on to express his appreciation “for the efforts made by the international community, represented here by the Diplomatic Corps and the members of the various Missions of the International Organizations” and encouraged them “to continue along the path of solidarity, in the hope that their commitment, together with the activity of the Central African authorities, will help the country to advance, especially in the areas of reconciliation, disarmament, peacekeeping, health care and the cultivation of a sound administration at all levels.”
He concluded by praying that the Central African people, its leaders and its partners may work ceaselessly “for unity, human dignity and a peace based on justice."
His speech was welcomed with great appreciation. It pointed a way ahead. But is only a start, and many are now looking to what else he will do and say during his stay here.