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Despite Warnings, Pope Francis Awaits “Enriching Encounters” in Central African Republic

Antoine Mekary/ALETEIA

Pope Francis leads a mass at the Artemio Franchi Stadium in Florence, Italy on November 10, 2015

Diane Montagna - published on 11/23/15

Paris official admits French troops would not “have the means to ensure security”

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has said he is looking forward to his visit to the Central African Republic with great joy and anticipates “great discoveries and enriching encounters,” despite continuing concerns about his safety in the country.

In a video-message sent to the people of CAR on Monday, the pope said their beloved country “has for too long been affected by a violent situation and by insecurity, of which many of you have been innocent victims.”

“The purpose of my visit,” he said, “is above all to bring to you, in the name of Jesus, the comfort of consolation and hope. I hope with all my heart that my visit may contribute, in one way or another, to alleviating your wounds and to favoring conditions for a better, more serene future for Central Africa and all its inhabitants.”

Pope Francis then reminded the people of CAR that the theme of his visit is: “Let us pass to the other side.” The theme, he said, invites Christian communities “to look ahead with determination and encourages each person to renew their own relationship with God and with their brothers and sisters to build a new, more just and fraternal world.”

During his two-day visit to the Central African Republic on November 29-30, Pope Francis will open Bangui Cathedral’s Holy Door in a powerful gesture leading up to the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In his video-message on Monday, he said he hoped this opening of the Jubilee Year “a little in advance” would be for everyone “a providential opportunity for authentic forgiveness, received and given, and for a renewal in love.”

He concluded his message, saying: “It is as a messenger of peace that I come to you. I am eager to support interreligious dialogue, to encourage peaceful coexistence in your country. I know this is possible because we are all brothers.”

But despite the pope’s calls peace ahead of his visit to the CAR, his own safety and those of his entourage cannot be assured, according to the French military.

The current borders of the Central African Republic were established by France, which ruled the country as a colony from the late-19th century until 1960. France will play a central security role during the pope’s visit.

According to Agence France-Presse, a Paris official admitted that French troops would not “have the means to ensure security” or manage large crowds during the papal visit.

The French official added that the government of President Francois Hollande now favors cancelling the pilgrimage or reducing it to “a few hours only.”

“We’ve let the pope know his arrival in the CAR will carry high risks for himself, and particularly for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims coming from Cameroon, Chad and the Congo,” the Defense Ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP. “Our own forces can secure the airport and provide a medical evacuation capacity for the authorities in case of an accident. But they cannot go any further.”

The Central African Republic has been the scene of violence and conflict since Islamists suspended the constitution in March 2013. The National Reconciliation Forum, convened by the transitional parliament in May, has brought armed factions together in preparations for the end-of-year elections and a constitutional referendum.

A Vatican official told Aleteia last week that he does not anticipate any changes to the pope’s itinerary. But he added that, just as a typhoon forced the pope to cut short his visit to the Philippine city of Tacloban last January, so similar adjustments are a possibility amid the danger of terrorist attacks in the Central African Republic.

Before visiting Central African Republic, Pope Francis will visit Kenya and Uganda.

Diane Montagnais Rome correspondent for the Aleteia’s English edition.

AfricaPope Francis

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