BANGUI, Central African Republic — The popemobile rolled into the center of this country’s civil war Monday, crossing the dangerous border between Christian and Muslim neighborhoods as Pope Francis launched what may be his boldest diplomatic effort yet.
Hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers patrolled the streets, AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, while residents waved white flags symbolizing peace — and their hopes for an end to a two-year conflict that has been fought mostly along religious lines and has killed more than 6,000 people.
It was the first time in recent memory that a pope has plunged into the middle of an armed conflict. When Francis arrived at the city’s Koudoukou central mosque, a group of community leaders and schoolchildren were waiting for him. During a ceremony inside, Francis bowed toward the Muslim holy city of Mecca and sat on a plush white sofa next to the imam.
“Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” he said in a speech, his voice filling the mosque and booming from an outdoor speaker to the overflow crowd. “We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such.”
For weeks, the visit had been in doubt. Foreign peacekeeping troops said they could not guarantee Francis’s safety. Violence continued until the morning the popemobile took off for PK-5, the city’s Muslim enclave, which has dwindled from 122,000 to 15,000 inhabitants in two years because of militia assaults. Many people questioned whether the pontiff’s visit would trigger a hostile response from a war-weary population.
But as roaring crowds lined the roads, standing in front of long-shuttered businesses and schools, it became clear that most residents saw the pope’s arrival as a game-changing moment — perhaps the beginning of a new peace process or renewed international attention.
“I still can’t believe he came,” said Gaspar Ndjawe, a local resident, who watched from across the street as the pope arrived Monday in his specially designed vehicle. “We need his message of hope. The people are tired of this life.”
Francis arrived in the capital Sunday, calling himself a “pilgrim of peace,” after stops in Kenya and Uganda. Although he did not formally mediate peace talks in the Central African Republic, in less than two days he met with a variety of leaders and gave dormant reconciliation efforts a new sense of urgency. The country’s interim president said the pope’s trip offered the promise of a new diplomatic track.
“We hope this visit of the pope will mark the beginning of the peace process,” the interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza, said at a news conference Saturday.
The Vatican has a long history of attempting to mediate or exert influence during tense geopolitical moments around the world. John Paul II, an ardent anti-communist and the first Polish pope, is credited with giving Eastern Europeans the courage to defy the Soviet-backed system. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI helped win the release of 15 British sailors held in Iran. Francis helped facilitate back-channel talks between the United States and Cuba that led to normalization of their relations last year.
But the Central African Republic garners less public attention than some of the previous targets of Vatican diplomacy. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, milked of its natural resources under French colonial rule. Since independence in 1958, it has been plagued by coup after coup.
Because the current conflict involves a constellation of loosely aligned militias, it can’t be mediated by high-level talks abroad. Francis seemed to intuit that a peace effort would benefit more from his on-the-ground, personal touch.
“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 at a meeting Sunday with government officials and diplomats.
There is no sadder symbol of the war’s grinding impact on the population than PK-5. It was the commercial center of Bangui before it became the heart of a conflict between two bands of militias, the mostly Muslim Seleka, which in 2012 overthrew the country’s president, François Bozizé, and the mostly Christian Anti-Balaka, which rose up in opposition.
The conflict has devolved into a cycle of brutal killings and reprisals. Even though it began as a struggle over political power and access to state resources, many of its victims have been targeted simply for being Christian or Muslim. When Francis spoke at the mosque, he condemned those killings.
“Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself,” he said.
For more than a year, a group of Christian and Muslim religious leaders had pleaded with Francis to visit Bangui, explaining that his presence might end the fighting after the failure of a U.N.-brokered peace process. The group traveled two times to the Vatican to make its case.
“He’s one of the most important religious leaders in the world, and I thought, ‘Maybe he will help us reinforce the message of peace,’ ” said Omar Kobine Layama, a prominent imam who was part of the group that visited the Vatican.
Persuading the militias to lay down their arms will be no easy task. But after the pope’s plane departed Monday for Rome, small signs of progress could already be seen. The anti-Balaka militias that typically cut off access to PK-5 were absent, making it easier for Muslims to move around the city than at any time in the past two years. Christian taxi drivers picked up Muslim passengers. Two men sat outside, near the border between religiously divided neighborhoods, marveling at the relative peace.
“Maybe the fighters have taken the pope’s message seriously,” said Abdul Karim Issa, 30.
“I hope it stays like this, but I don’t know,” said Musa Mohammed, 31.
A key test of the country’s stability will come later this month, when it is scheduled to hold elections. The list of candidates includes former president Bozizé, who is wanted in the Central African Republic for war crimes and is under sanctions by the United Nations. Others candidates have ties to the armed groups still waging war.