By Joe Bavier | Reuters
BANGUI, Nov 28 (Reuters) – French and U.N. armoured vehicles and tanks jostled with ramshackle yellow taxis on the congested streets of Central African Republic’s capital on Saturday as security was beefed up a day before the arrival of Pope Francis.
The pope’s visit to the former French colony, racked since 2013 by a conflict that has descended into inter-religious bloodshed, has been welcomed by both the majority Christian community and the Muslim minority.
Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza said on Saturday that the event could mark a turning point in the fighting, which has pitted neighbours against each other.
“Central Africans know that the pope is a messenger of peace, and they hope that the message he is going to deliver to them will trigger a national awakening and awareness so that Central Africans learn to live together once again,” she said.
However, in the days before his scheduled arrival his exact itinerary has been in doubt and there has been speculation that security concerns might force the final leg of the pope’s first African tour to be called off altogether.
Following months of relative calm, clashes have again flared around Bangui’s PK5, an enclave of Muslims, leaving at least 100 people dead since late September, according to Human Rights Watch.
Pope Francis, who arrives in Bangui on Sunday from Uganda, is scheduled to visit a mosque the following day in PK5, which has been under a blockade by Christian militias for the last two months.
French officials warned the Vatican earlier this month that the trip to Central African Republic could put the pope as well as hundreds of thousands of believers at risk.
Church officials, however, have given assurances that the visit will go ahead.
“I asked myself, before God, is it true what the French said that they didn’t have the capacity to secure the pope’s visit,” said Arlette Tanga, a volunteer who cares for those wounded in the inter-religious conflict. “But I had faith in God and it worked.”
U.N. SOLDIERS AND BOY SCOUTS
Central African Republic’s U.N. peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, is heading up a massive push to limit the risks in the run-down riverside city ahead of the visit.
MINUSCA has received extra soldiers and will deploy between 3,000 and 4,000 troops. New surveillance drones and observation balloons capable of quickly pinpointing trouble spots anywhere in Bangui hover in the skies above the city.
The Central African government is contributing some 500 police and gendarmes. And France’s 900 soldiers in the country are also on alert.
In addition to Bangui’s residents, thousands of Catholics are expected to brave militia and rebel checkpoints and travel there from other parts of Central African Republic to catch a glimpse of the pope.
Others will cross the Ubangi River in small boats from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, raising concerns over the capacity to control the massive crowds expected to turn out.
Government spokesman Dominique Said Panguindji, however, said the authorities were doing everything necessary to keep order, including training and deploying thousands of boy and girl scouts to cordon off the pope’s route through Bangui.
“Between the government and the Christian community, I think a combined effort will allow us to ensure the security of the Holy Father during this visit. We won’t be overwhelmed,” he said.