BANGUI, Central African Republic — Pope Francis landed Sunday morning in this war-torn capital, launching his bid to end a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people in two years, mostly along religious lines.
Calling himself “a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope,” Francis and his plane landed on a runway that is now surrounded by a sprawling camp for the internally displaced. He drove along a dangerous stretch of road in a Toyota SUV with the windows down, waving to the thousands of joyous people who cheered his convoy.
Within his first few hours here, Francis spoke to government officials and a crowd of internally displaced families, stressing his hope that the country would reenergize its fledgling peace process. The pope’s visit to this war-torn capital is the first by a pontiff in recent memory into an armed conflict. The stop here is considered by many to be the centerpiece of his first trip to Africa — and one of his most involved diplomatic efforts.
“It is my fervent wish that the various national consultations to be held in coming weeks will enable the country to embark serenely on new chapter of its history,” he said at a meeting with government officials and diplomats.
Everywhere he went, his audience appeared receptive, expressing exhaustion with the ongoing conflict.
“The pope is here. The fighting is over,” people cheered in the streets.
At the camp for the internally displaced, children held signs that read “justice,” “peace” and “pardon.”
“Everyone should put their hearts together for peace,” he said after reading the signs.
Before Francis’s plane landed, the first time in recent memory that a pope has flown into an armed conflict, U.N. peacekeepers filled the streets. A surveillance balloon flew overhead. But during his first day in a city that has been brutally segregated along religious lines, Francis saw almost only Christians.
The most challenging — and dangerous — part of the trip will come Monday, when he visits a Muslim community that has frequently been cut off from food and health-care services by mostly Christian militants.
This war, which has been fought largely along religious lines, has shown no sign of relenting, in spite of diplomatic efforts by the United Nations, the United States and France, the former colonial power here. Now it’s up to Francis, the papal diplomat who helped broker a détente reached last year between the United States and Cuba.
“We hope this visit of the pope will mark the beginning of the peace process,” Catherine Samba-Panza, president of Central African Republic’s transitional government, said at a news conference Sunday.
But across Bangui, as peacekeepers and military convoys patrolled the streets, residents were on edge Saturday.
The central hospital released as many patients as possible to free space in case the pontiff’s visit is met with violence. The offices of international humanitarian groups went on lockdown. French troops, who announced earlier this month that they would be unable to protect Francis, scrambled to do what they could to reinforce security.
The fighting here began in 2013, after rebels called the Seleka advanced toward the capital, Bangui, from the predominantly Muslim north, passing through towns where they often targeted civilians. In response, a mostly Christian group called the anti-Balaka was formed to repel them. The fighting was not initially over religion but rather over politics and access to state resources, with the Seleka overthrowing former president François Bozize in March 2013.
Since then, the violence has left more than 6,000 dead. It has pitted Christians against members of the Muslim minority — sometimes neighbor against neighbor. The capital is almost entirely segregated, with few people traversing between the two worlds. Every day the Hospital General, the city’s largest medical facility, treats about five gunshot victims, many of them occurring near the nexus of the two communities.
Francis plans to visit both sides, with a Mass at the city’s cathedral Sunday and a meeting Monday at the Koudoukou mosque. For weeks, Muslim and Christian leaders have asked their congregations to welcome him, to put down their arms for the 26 hours he is in Bangui.
“You will see the pope will be welcomed by both sides,” Monsignor Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the archbishop of Bangui, said in an interview. “At this moment of violence, barbarism and the burning of houses, we need a message of peace.”
A coalition of Muslim and Christian religious leaders from the Central African Republic quietly made two trips to the Vatican over the past year, urging the pope to visit and helping to plan the details of his trip. As U.N.-led peace initiatives failed, the leaders grew to see a papal visit as a way to refocus attention on a reconciliation plan.
“Many people here think no one cares about CAR,” Nzapalainga said. “But we hope a visit from the pope will change that idea.”
Yet it remains unclear how much power the religious officials who helped organize the pope’s visit have over the country’s armed elements. Many of the militants have rejected previous calls for nonviolence from imams and priests.
“They have refused to listen,” said Omar Kobine Layama, a prominent imam. “They are not good Christians or good Muslims, the men fighting this war.”
Francis has been committed to the visit, even after French troops said they could not guarantee his protection and as the violence continued unabated in the days before his arrival.
On the plane to Kenya, his first stop on this trip, Francis joked with the pilot:
“I want to go to CAR. If you can’t manage it, give me a parachute.”
His spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, had quipped a few days ago that the pope would give a news conference at the end of the Africa trip “if all are alive.”
The Vatican has a long history of attempting to mediate conflicts around the world. In 1978, Pope John Paul II brokered a peace deal between Argentina and Chile over the Beagle Channel, at the tip of South America. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI helped win the release of 15 British sailors held in Iran.
But Francis’s efforts in Central African Republic are more overt, leveraging the pontiff’s public profile to reenergize talks between interreligious leaders about the violence. It remains unclear exactly what role Francis might play in a peace process that has consisted of a series of seemingly ineffective meetings between armed groups and civil society groups. Still, his meetings Sunday and Monday are being discussed by the country’s leaders as a way forward.
“Up until last week the people didn’t think the pope would come,” Samba-Panza said. “But we need his message of peace.”
Central African Republic is the third and final stop on the pope’s Africa trip, which began Wednesday in Kenya and continued to Uganda. On Saturday, the pontiff celebrated Mass before about 300,000 people at a well-known shrine to Anglican and Catholic martyrs in Namugongo and then led a boisterous youth rally in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
Francis has suggested that there is a concrete — but secret — reason behind his determination to visit the Central African Republic, telling reporters on his plane last week that he will not reveal that reason until he is on his way back to Rome.
Still, many victims of the violence are skeptical that the pope’s visit will change much.
On Saturday, Georgette Seleade was sitting under the shade of her white U.N.-issued tent next to the airport. Her eldest son died five days earlier. He was stabbed and killed by Muslim combatants and cut up into pieces, she said. A family member identified the remains on the side of a nearby road.
In her hand she held a picture of her son, a handsome man straddling a new motorcycle, smiling.
“The U.N. forces tried to bring peace and they failed,” Seleade said. “Why should we believe the pope will change anything?”