Pope heads to conflict-wracked Central African Republic

Pope heads to conflict-wracked Central African Republic

Entebbe, Uganda - Pope Francis headed Sunday to conflict-ridden Central African Republic, the most dangerous destination of his three-nation Africa tour, after euphoric celebrations in his honour in Uganda and Kenya.

Thousands of believers, many from neighbouring countries, are expected to pour into CAR's capital Bangui to see the 78-year-old pontiff, and workers have been busily repairing potholes and sprucing up the cathedral square for the visit.

Rights groups in CAR, one of Africa's poorest and most unstable countries, hope the Argentinian pope will address the religious violence that has raged for more than two years.

Stalls have sprung up across the capital selling everything from Vatican flags to paper crowns to welcome the pope.

"We are very pleased to see the pope," said Fidele Nodjindorom who lives in a camp for people displaced by the conflict that the pope is due to visit.

"He knows that things have happened in our country and maybe he has come to ask God to save us." The pontiff wrapped up his two-day visit to Uganda, flying out at around 0645 GMT Sunday, a day after huge crowds celebrated as Francis honoured Christians martyred for the faith on the second leg of his first trip to Africa, which he dubbed "the continent of hope".

Francis, who railed against corruption and wealthy minorities who hoard resources at the expense of the poor on his first stop in neighbouring Kenya, struck a more optimistic tone in Uganda.

"The world looks to Africa as the continent of hope," he said, praising the east African nation for accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring war-torn states.

But he also offered prayers for "the beloved people of Burundi" that the troubled central African nation will end months of strife that has sparked fears of renewed civil war.

The Central African Republic was plunged into chaos after president Francois Bozize was ousted in a coup in March 2013.

The mainly Muslim rebels behind the coup went on a rampage that triggered the creation of the equally dangerous anti-Balaka militia in mostly Christian communities.

Concerns about the pope's safety have been running high ahead of his visit, and the pontiff's chief bodyguard, Domenico Gianni, has spent several days consulting with local security forces in Bangui.

The Vatican's spokesman said Saturday that Francis' itinerary had been confirmed and all was expected to go ahead as planned, "if there are no particular surprises".

He is scheduled to visit a mosque in Bangui's PK5 district, a maze of red dirt roads and flimsy shacks that has been a flashpoint in the sectarian conflict tearing apart the impoverished nation.

The area saw an unprecedented wave of violence pitting majority Christians against minority Muslims in late 2013 and early last year.

Francis is also due to celebrate mass in the Barthelemy Boganda sports stadium and visit a camp for people who have been displaced by the violence.

"Everything has been done to ensure the safety of the pope... there is no real threat," said CAR Public Security Minister Chrysostome Sambia, although he admitted there have been reports of "ill-intentioned groups in some areas".

At the height of the massacres, around one in five of CAR's 4.6 million people were displaced and half the population depended on humanitarian aid.

Violence continues to stalk the country, with at least 61 people killed in Bangui in late September before UN and French peacekeeping forces intervened.

Ilaria Allegrozzi of rights group Amnesty International said the pope "has a real opportunity to call for the protection of civilians of all faiths, and use his great moral authority to help reduce the tension that has recently resulted in deadly violence".

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