For Pope Francis had been urged by some opinion-makers of the world to go to Central African Republic, where thousands of people had been killed because they were either Christians or Muslims, to convey a message to the combatants that religious beliefs should not lead to killings but to brotherhood, or at the very least, to tolerance. (See one such appeal in the 2 links below.)
Yet when the Pope decided to go to the Central African Republic, he was told in no uncertain terms that France, which has been overseeing a peace-keeping effort organised with the United Nations in the CAR, and has the best and most accurate information (because it created the modern state of CAR) on what goes on in the CAR, not to go! A report on the website of RFI, the French television station, said:
“Article published Wednesday 11 November 2015
France presses Pope to cancel Central African Republic visit
“The French army is trying to persuade Pope Francis to scrap a visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of the month, just before a referendum and elections are due to take place, and is refusing to provide troops for his security detail, according to French media.
France will not provide any soldiers for Pope Francis’s security if he goes ahead with the visit on 29-30 November, sources told Wednesday’s Le Monde newspaper.
“The 900-strong Sangaris contingent has a clearly defined mission, they say, and that is to provide security for the airport and help evacuation if necessary. Officials have told the Vatican that the visit is “high-risk”, French defence officials at the Africa security forum in Dakar told the paper.
As well as the French troops, there are 9,000 UN soldiers in the CAR, sent there two years ago when virtual civil war erupted between Muslim and majority-Christian militias.
“President Catherine Samba-Panza’s government is struggling to re-establish order and France reversed a decision to gradually pull troops out a month ago when violence flared up again….
Not only do the French fear that the Pope’s visit could revive sectarian tensions, they also believe that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Christians from neighbouring countries would be too much for the country’s ruined infrastructure.” UNQUOTE
That the Pope decided – notwithstanding these clear warnings from Almighty France – to go ahead with the visit, must have presented the security service of the Vatican with the nightmare to end all nightmares. Not even the French presidency could have resisted such a warning, and the Pope and his security office cannot be praised too highly for ignoring the possible physical dangers inherent in the trip and rather prioritising the spiritual gains to be made from it. For the first time in many years, the Vatican has proved that its “business” is spiritual, not political.
Okay, so the visit did go ahead. What did it achieve beyond the obvious photo opportunities it offered the Vatican? This is how the BBC described it:
QUOTE: “Pope Francis … told worshippers in a mosque in the Central African Republic that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters”. He was speaking to Muslims who had sought shelter in the capital, Bangui, after nearly three years of violence between Christians and Muslims.
The mosque visit was seen as perhaps the most difficult part of his Africa tour…
“More than 100,000 Muslims [had] left the capital as a result of the fighting but 15,000 are left in an area called PK5, according to the campaign group Human Rights Watch… The Pope called on fighting factions in the CAR to lay down their weapons. “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” he said. “Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace,” he said, noting that Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional religions had lived together in peace for many years.
“He appealed for an end to every act which, from whatever side, disfigures the face of God and whose ultimate aim, is to defend particular interests by any and all means….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. God is peace, ‘Salaam,’ the Pope said, using the Arabic word for peace. Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” he said, after a speech [of welcome] by Imam Tidiani Moussa Naibi, one of the local religious leaders [who are] trying to foster dialogue.” UNQUOTE
Well, fine words, one would say, but what lasting effect can they have? It is difficult to say, but there is no doubt that body language can have a tremendous psychological effect on all sorts of people and political conditions. People who are well-versed in world political history will remember that before the normalisation of relations between the United States and China, there were mysterious sporting contacts in which the two countries that did not recognise each other politically, nevertheless played ping-pong together.
(The US. Table Tennis team was in Nagoya, Japan in 1971 for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships when they received an unexpected invitation to visit China! On 10 April, 1971, the US team and accompanying journalists became the first American delegation to set foot in the Chinese capital since 1949. By 1974, US President Richard Nixon had visited China and met the Chinese leader, Mao Tsedong – something no-one would have dared to forecast a few years earlier!
(Before then, the possibility of détente between the United States and the USSR had also been presaged by the famous inter-person “kitchen debate” between the then Vice-President of the USA, Richard Nixon, and the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mr Nikita Khrushchev, during Mr Khrushchev’s visit to the USA, in 1959. It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev met Ronald Reagan in Helsinki in 1986 that détente was finally sealed, but 1959 had shown that the possibility existed for the great powers to talk to each other verbally and not with thermonuclear weapons.
(Finally, in Africa too, the organic process that led to the liberation of South Africa from apartheid began with an arranged “accidental meeting” between a group of South African “businessmen”, led by the Anglo-American chairman, Gavin Relly, and ANC representatives led by Oliver Tambo in Zambia, in September 1985. Nine years later, South Africa was free, with Nelson Mandela as its President.)
Now, it’s been three years since Central African Republic descended into chaos after mainly Muslim “Seleka” insurgents had seized power in a country with a majority Christian population, sparking reprisals from Christian militias. Scores of thousands of people have become internally displaced persons. Leaders from both sides have acknowledged that the hatred in the country has been manipulated for political gain. With the Pope having stepped inside a mosque, and preached a message of peace and brotherhood, how can Muslim politicians be believed if they continue to preach a message that claims that Christians want to murder them? And vice versa?
Personally, my hope is that the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia will follow the Pope’s example and ALSO send a high-powered delegation to Bangui, which will reciprocate the Pope’s gesture of goodwill, and preach a message of peace in Bangui’s Catholic Cathedral. If the Saudis fail to respond to the need for peace in the Central African Republic, they will expose themselves to charges of hypocrisy, seeing that the usual salutation of Muslims to one another and to strangers is Salaam’Aleikum! (Peace be unto you!)
The CAR badly needs to have this message of peace translated into reality, and Saudi Arabia, as the custodian if all that is holy in Islam, must ALSO do its duty by the people of the CAR, and help to cement the peace process that the Pope has begun with his visit to a mosque in Bangui.