BANGUI, Central African Republic — Pope Francis arrived Sunday morning in this war-ravaged capital, launching his bid to end a conflict that largely follows religious lines and that has killed more than 6,000 people in two years.
Calling himself “a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope,” Francis landed on a runway next to a sprawling camp for the internally displaced. He drove along a dangerous stretch of road in a Toyota SUV with the windows down, waving to the thousands of joyous people who cheered his convoy.
“The pope is here! The fighting is over,” people cheered in the streets.
Since early 2013, members of the loosely allied, mostly Muslim Seleka rebels (now called the ex-Seleka after being formally dissolved) have fought against a band of mostly Christian militias called the anti-balaka. That conflict has sharply segregated Bangui and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes. Efforts from the United Nations to broker a peace deal have failed so far. As Francis spoke Sunday, it became clear that he intends his visit as a way of kick-starting reconciliation efforts, shining a light on a conflict that much of the world has ignored or forgotten.
“To all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world, I make this appeal: Lay down these instruments of death!” Francis said during Mass at Bangui’s cathedral.
But his attempt at mediation here faces significant challenges. Even though Francis appears to have the attention of many of the country’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders, they exercise limited influence over the men who are fighting. Francis saw the intractability of the conflict up close Sunday. Shortly after he arrived, three young men were killed not far from the presidential palace, according to Vatican Insider, a prominent Italian Web site covering the Vatican.
Francis, moved by the news, asked whether he could visit the site of the incident, but his security advisers told him not to.
“I don’t think the groups are going to disarm just because the pope calls for it,” said Lewis Mudge, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the pope’s visit brings international attention to CAR at a critical time.”
Within his first few hours here, Francis spoke to government officials and a crowd of displaced families, stressing his hope that the country would re-energize its fledgling peace process. The pope’s visit is the first by a pontiff in recent memory into an armed conflict. It has been portrayed as the centerpiece of his first trip to Africa — and one of his most involved diplomatic efforts.
“It is my fervent wish that the various national consultations to be held in coming weeks will enable the country to embark serenely on a new chapter of its history,” he said Sunday at a meeting with government officials and diplomats.
Everywhere he went, his audience appeared receptive, expressing frustration with the conflict. Before Francis’s plane landed, U.N. peacekeepers filled the streets. A surveillance balloon flew overhead. But during his first day in a city that has been brutally segregated along religious lines, Francis saw almost only Christians.
“I have Muslim friends I haven’t seen for a year,” said Viviane Nzafeo, 42, who waited on the side of the road for the pope to drive by. “Before, it was not a religious war, it was a coup, but they’ve tried to make it about religion.”
The most challenging — and dangerous — part of the trip will come Monday, when he visits a Muslim community called PK-5 that has frequently been cut off from food and health-care services by mostly Christian militants. Francis will enter the area to visit the local community at the Koudoukou mosque. The neighborhood and its periphery are frequent sites of clashes.
“I don’t think any other head of state would do what he’s doing,” Mudge said.
For many Catholics here, the security threat was not an issue for someone as religious as Francis.
“The pope is a man of faith, so he doesn’t fear for security,” said Father Sylvan Mapouka, a priest from Bambari, in the center of the country, which has seen some of the conflict’s worst violence.
The trip here is the product of months of planning, including two trips to the Vatican by a group of Muslim and Christian leaders from CAR. One of them was Omar Kobine Layama, a prominent imam. On Sunday, he appeared to be the only Muslim attending the Mass led by Francis. After the pope finished his homily, he stepped down from his sanctuary and greeted Layama before anyone else. The two also had shared the stage at a previous meeting with religious officials.
Layama, though, acknowledged that the men leading the fighting are not likely to change their ways in response to pleas from an imam, or priest — or even the pope.
“They have refused to listen,” he said of the fighters in an interview Saturday. “They are not good Christians or good Muslims, the men fighting this war.”
On Sunday, Francis also made a short visit to a camp for the internally displaced, where children held signs that read “justice,” “peace” and “pardon.”
“Everyone should put their hearts together for peace,” he said after reading the signs.