, VATICAN City, Holy See, Nov 2 – Pope Francis’s visit to the violence-hit Central African Republic (CAR) remains “on the programme”, the Vatican said Monday, but the trip would have to be cancelled if fighting in the capital intensifies.
“The pope’s visit to CAR remains on the programme. Francis greatly desires to go there,” the Vatican’s deputy spokesman Ciro Benedettini told AFP.
The pope is expected in the poor landlocked country from November 28 to 29 during a much-anticipated visit to Africa which will also see him travel to Kenya and Uganda. The six-day tour, his first to the continent, will begin on November 25.
But Francis hinted this weekend that part of the journey may have to be scrapped, saying he “hoped” to visit CAR despite daily violence in the capital Bangui between Christians and Muslims. The trip had previously been definite.
The 78-year-old Argentine is scheduled to visit a mosque in one of the most dangerous areas of the city, where vigilantes mainly drawn from the Christian majority emerged to avenge atrocities by Muslim ex-rebels who had seized power for 10 months in 2013.
On Saturday, Muslim militants killed at least two people and wounded several in a Christian neighbourhood of the capital.
The country has suffered recurring bouts of religious bloodletting since the ousting in March 2013 of then president Francois Bozize, a Christian, by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, sparked months of violence.
The latest clashes have also cast a shadow over plans by the transitional authorities to hold a constitutional referendum and kick off the first stage of two-step presidential and parliamentary elections by the end of the year.
Radio Vatican expert Luis Badilla said “the most delicate issue… concerns the possible reaction from extremist Islamic groups that are not under the control of moderate Muslim leaders, in particular where large crowds are expected.”
Such crowds are likely for the scheduled mass at the cathedral, a prayer vigil with young people, the visit to Koudoukou mosque and the final mass at the city’s sports stadium.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga said a Vatican envoy carrying out a reconnaissance of the area last week along with government representatives received verbal death threats at the mosque.