Flanked by Vatican bodyguards in flak vests and machine-gun-toting U.N. peacekeepers, Pope Francis plunged Sunday into conflict-wracked Central African Republic to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to a country where Christian-Muslim violence has divided the capital and forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes.
Schoolgirls dressed in the yellow and white of the Holy See flag and women dressed in traditional African fabric emblazoned with the pope's face joined government and church authorities to welcome Francis at Bangui airport amid tight security.
As Francis emerged, a huge cheer broke out from the small crowd and the cheers continued along his motorcade route — some 5 kilometers (3 miles) of it in his open-sided popemobile. The crowds swelled again at a displacement camp, where children sang him songs of welcome and held up hand-made signs saying "Peace," ''Love," and "Unity."
"My wish for you, and for all Central Africans, is peace," Francis said at the St. Sauveur church camp. Francis then led them in a chant: "We are all brothers. We are all brothers."
"And because we are brothers, we want peace," he said.
Sunday's visit was a rare moment of jubilation in Central African Republic, where Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president in early 2013, ushering in a brutal reign that led to a swift and horrific backlash against Muslim civilians when the rebel leader left power the following year.
Throughout the early months of 2014, mobs attacked Muslims in the streets, even decapitating and dismembering them and setting their corpses ablaze. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians fled for their lives to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Today the capital that once had 122,000 Muslims has only around 15,000, according to Human Rights Watch.
While ecstatic crowds celebrated the pope's visit and message of reconciliation, thousands of Muslims remained essentially blockaded in their neighborhood of PK5, unable to leave because of the armed Christian militia fighters called the anti-Balaka who surround its perimeter.
Francis plans to enter this highly volatile neighborhood on Monday morning to meet with the local imam and Muslims in the mosque before celebrating a final Mass and returning to Rome.
The precarious security in Bangui raised the possibility in recent weeks that the pope could cancel his visit or at least trim it back. 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.
Welcoming Francis at the presidential palace, President Catherine Samba-Panza thanked him for his "lesson in courage" in overcoming security concerns to make the trip, saying his presence showed the "victory of faith over fear."
She said she hoped Francis' visit would result in the "demons of division, hatred and self-destruction being exorcised and chased forever from our land."
In a nod to Francis' appeal for personal soul-searching, she offered a public confession.
"In the name of the entire governing class of this country and also in the name of all those who have contributed in some way to its descent into hell, I confess all the evil that has been done here over history and ask forgiveness from the bottom of my heart," she said.
In response, Francis told her he was here as a "pilgrim of peace, an apostle of hope," seeking to encourage reconciliation, disarmament and peace.
He said he hoped elections scheduled for next month would enable the conflict-torn country to "serenely begin a new phase of its history.
But the security 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 was understandably tight.
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.
Vatican gendarmes already on the ground when Francis arrived donned flak vests — an unusual if not unprecedented occurrence.
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.
Many hope that the pope's message of peace and reconciliation can encourage longer-term stability in this former French colony of 4.8 million that owes its foundation as an independent country to a Catholic priest.
"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 with Francis' face on it. "For two years we have been crying. We hope the visit of the pope will change things for the better."
The Muslim community, as well, hopes the visit will improve the bleak condition they're living in. Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, presidennt of the Central African Islamic Community, said the country's Muslims want the pope to pray for them all.
"For the reconciliation of our hearts, the hearts of all the Central Africans, and be the door — our open door — because we don't have a voice now, we are really living in a precarious situation that doesn't have a name."
Francis was to underscore a message of the need for forgiveness and mercy by hearing confessions from several young Catholics at the start of a Sunday evening vigil at Bangui's cathedral.
He was to start the Mass with a ceremonial opening of the cathedral's Holy Door — officially starting his Jubilee Year of Mercy a week early in a bid to give Africa a special place.
In an amazing sight outside the cathedral before Francis arrived, a lone Muslim wearing a white robe and traditional Muslim cap toted a sign reading "One God. One Earth. Same Ancestor."
Adoum Silick, 45, acknowledged the risk in venturing to the grounds of the cathedral but said "sometimes we have to be courageous."
"Life is very difficult for the Muslims who remain," he said. "I am taking advantage of all the security here to come."
But 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.
"We Christians and Muslims lived together for many years and then it was torn apart," said Georges Pokama, 62, as he sat in the shade of a roadside shop in Bangui with his portable radio in hand wearing a hat that said "United for Peace. "The pope is a great mediator and we must listen to his message."