So. The Pope arrived here in Bangui this morning just slightly late at 10.45 am. I heard his plane touch down, the Presidential cavalcade screeching its way past the airport, and later this afternoon hymns from the Cathedral mass drifted up to my garden. I live near Bangui Cathedral, and have a pass to the Pope events (good religious contacts). I wandered down to see how MINUSCA was managing the security.
Around the Cathedral was an air of quiet panic. On one side a sea of UN blue helmets and white UN vehicles – including those angular armoured vehicles that always look to me like like war-zone movie props. Just over the fence was another human sea, of man in long white robes processing around an open-air stage. I think the Pope was amongst them, but it was hard to tell.
Like many people around the world, I admire the apparent humility of Pope Francis, his courage to break Vatican protocols (he has for example just announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy in Bangui, the first time this has ever been launched outside of Rome). His rejection of many of the pompous vanities of the Papacy has rendered him internationally beloved for religious integrity, humanity and a fierce devotion to justice. He also tweets.
A religious insider tells me Pope Francis has been very troubled by the plight of Central Africans, and was determined not just to visit Bangui, but to spend the night here, with all the heavy symbolism that adds to his fleeting presence. But – is this Papal visit a good idea at all? It is a whirlwind tour of 26 hours (he’s gone by 12.15 pm tomorrow) and includes two masses, a fleeting glimpse of a Bangui IDP camp, a talk with President Catherine Samba-Panza – and a pow-wow with the bishops of course – plus a swift visit to the beleaguered Muslim community at PK 5. The Pope describes himself as a ‘Pilgrim of peace’ and has already called for Central Africans to avoid, ‘The temptation of fear of others, of the unfamiliar, of what is not part of our ethnic group, our political view, our religious confession……’
International news channels are still churning out the same old stereotypes about CAR Christians and Muslims constantly killing each other over matters of faith – see today’s Guardian report on CAR’s religious ‘civil war’. The BBC has a more nuanced approach, at least attempting to address other conflict ‘drivers’ such as gold, governance and a bloody political power struggle.
This Papal visit adds to the framing of the crisis here in CAR as a wholly religious conflict. Is this really the moment for a global Christian leader to add to the top-heavy religious narrative, and to visit a Muslim community to prove his own peacebuilding credentials? CAR obtained Israeli aerial listening devices this week and one is suspended for the first time directly above PK 5 as I write. It might protect Pope Francis but won’t do much for community relations in Bangui.
The well-meaning Pope risks reinforcing the inter-religious narrative in CAR when Central Africans are increasingly rejecting it: such fleeting visits cannot change anything of substance here, but something of this scale does command security resources that are urgently needed to protect CAR civilians, three of whom were kidnapped this morning. This visit may be at best self-indulgent and at worst counter-productive.
Civilians are being killed in the Central African Republic every day, above all because people don’t trust each other any more and are habituated to inter-familial and communal violence. This is not a religious conflict but a crisis where religious identities are a symptom not a cause of a deeper ingrained shattered national fabric, that a swift stage-managed high-level visit cannot begin to address nor influence.