Pope Francis arrived Sunday in the conflict-torn Central African Republic, brushing aside security concerns to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to a country where violence between Christian and Muslim militants has divided the capital city and forced nearly 1 million from their homes over the last two years.
Schoolgirls in yellow and white dresses — the colors of the Holy See flag — joined government and church authorities to welcome Francis at the heavily secured Bangui airport. The pope's Alitalia charter landed just beyond the settlement for displaced residents that has cropped up on the airport's edge, housing some of those displaced by the violence.
As Francis emerged, a huge cheer broke out from the small crowd and the cheers continued along his motorcade route — some 5 kilometers of it in his open-sided popemobile — and then at a displacement camp where children sang him songs of welcome.
"My wish for you, and for all Central Africans, is peace," Francis said at the Saint Sauveur church camp, where he was mobbed by ululating well-wishers and toddlers who embraced his white cassock. Francis then led them in a chant: "We are all brothers. We are all brothers."
"And because we're brothers, we want peace," he said.
The precarious security situation in Bangui, the capital, raised the possibility in recent weeks that the pope could cancel his visit. Less than a year ago, mobs beat Muslims to death in the streets, even decapitating and dismembering some. While sectarian clashes have left at least 100 people dead over the last two months, in recent days Bangui has been relatively free of gunfire.
In a speech at the presidential palace to interim President Catherine Samba-Panza and the diplomatic corps, Francis said he was coming to their country as a "pilgrim of peace, an apostle of hope."
He urged national and international authorities to work together to "help the country progress above all in reconciliation, disarmament, consolidation of peace, in health care and in developing a healthy culture of administration at all levels."
Many hope that the pope's message of peace and reconciliation can encourage longer-term stability in this nation of 4.8 million. As part of his trip, the pope plans to venture into the capital's Muslim enclave, known as PK5, to meet with community leaders and the uprooted.
Samba-Panza told reporters Saturday that the pope is being welcomed as a "peace messenger."
"Many Central Africans hope that the messages he will deliver will inspire a national mobilization and realization that Central Africans learn to accept each other again, learn to live together again and learn to go toward peace and reconstruction of their country," she said.
That's a message Francis was expected to bring to a Mass and vigil service Sunday at Bangui's cathedral. Francis also was to hear confessions from several young people, underscoring his message of the need for forgiveness and mercy in the country wracked by retaliatory Christian-Muslim attacks.
"It is a great joy and we are very touched that he is coming to visit," said Merline Bambou, 24, as she left Sunday Mass wearing a two-piece dress made of traditional African fabric emblazoned with Pope Francis' face. "For two years we have been crying. We hope the visit of people will change things for the better."
At the displacement camp at Bangui's airport, where thousands have lived for nearly two years, there is a sense that things now are the worst they've been since December 2013. Sandrine Sanze and her family are now back for a second time after the recent clashes, having initially spent nine months at the airport camp.
"It is our prayer that with the pope's visit that peace will return, we can go home and life can start anew," she said, sitting on the ground outside her home of scrap metal that she and her husband dragged to the site.
The situation remains tense and fragile: Bangui's archbishop travels into the city's Muslim enclave under escort from armed peacekeepers. The city of Bangui has long been under a nightly curfew of 8 p.m. as gun battles have rung out after dark in the flashpoint neighborhoods.
Security on Sunday remained tight. At the St. Sauveur church displacement camp where Francis visited, dozens of U.N. peacekeepers stood guard and security forces wielded portable metal detectors — a rare event in this largely anarchic country.
A U.N. helicopter hovered overhead at the airport and armed peacekeepers on foot stood about 20 feet apart lining the road into the capital ahead of the pope's arrival. The airport road has been the scene of frequent carnage during the conflict, most recently in late October when two Muslims were abducted and killed after Christian militia fighters stopped their taxi before it reached the airport.
The United Nations sought to assure the Vatican that security was under control on the eve of the pope's arrival. The head of the U.N. operation, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, told Vatican Radio that U.N. peacekeepers and French troops were confident that they could keep the pope and his entourage safe.
"Certainly, you can't exclude that a saboteur might try to disrupt the calm, but we're ready to respond in the most efficient way possible," Onanga-Anyanga said.
The bloodshed dates back to early 2013, when a coalition of mostly Muslim rebel groups from the country's anarchic north overthrew the Christian president. Their power grab was more about greed than ideology, yet their rule saw tensions rise as the rebels carried out brutal attacks on civilians. After the rebel leader stepped aside in early 2014, a wave of retaliatory violence by Christian fighters called the anti-Balaka forced most of the capital's Muslims to flee. Human Rights Watch said there are only 15,000 Muslims remaining in Bangui, down from around 122,000.
Central African Republic was organizing democratic elections for December when the death of a young Muslim taxi driver in late September reignited tensions. Within hours, the Muslim fighters, called the Seleka, retaliated in attacks on Christians in the neighborhoods surrounding PK5.
The Muslim community in PK5 is eager to welcome Pope Francis, Onanga-Anyanga said. Earlier this week, workers were busily repainting the cream-colored mosque he is due to visit a vibrant mint green.
"The opportunity of the pope's visit reminds us that aside from being a head of state, he's also a spiritual leader," he said. "And it's perhaps in this dimension that the Central Africans can find the energy, the inspiration so that the country can find the will to reconcile with itself, and that it can plan a future in which all the Central African children can live in unity."