BANGUI: Pope Francis has brought fresh hopes of peace to the war-ravaged Central African Republic, with Christians and Muslims praising his decision to name Bangui’s archbishop a cardinal as a step to ending sectarian violence.
Aged only 49, Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga will be the youngest of the 17 new “princes of the church” named by the pontiff Sunday, all of them his potential successors.
Nzapalainga, the archbishop of the capital of CAR, met the pope 11 months ago when Francis flew into the country torn by three years of sectarian violence for a visit that helped calm the trouble.
“I was not named for myself, I was named for our country,” said Nzapalainga, who was instrumental in organising the pope’s potentially dangerous 2015 trip to one of the world’s poorest nations, where conflict has displaced more than one tenth of its 4.5 million people.
As if to underline the fresh impetus for peace offered by the pope, thousands of people poured onto the streets of Bangui late Sunday to celebrate their cardinal-to-be, with security staff forced to step in to usher the archbishop’s vehicle through the crowds to the cathedral.
“It’s a new era, God is inviting us to make peace,” said Serge Makandjia, a member of the Catholic congregation.
In his evening sermon, Nzapalainga thanked the pope for his nomination, stressing that it comes as the country sees a new outbreak of violence.
“I tell you that there is a God for the poor,” he said.
Since the pontiff’s visit last year, the country has had elections that passed peacefully.
But 100 days after his February election, President Faustin-Archange Touadera warned that CAR remains “in danger,” with entire regions controlled by armed groups representing warring pro-Christian and pro-Muslim militia.
A 12,000-strong UN force is deployed in the country while France’s now reduced force of 350 is due to pull out this month.
Tensions remain high, however. Last week 11 people were killed and more than a dozen reported missing in violence that erupted after the slaying of an army commander in Bangui’s predominantly Muslim PK5 neighbourhood by an armed militia.
Nzapalainga pledged he would visit the PK5 neighbourhood “very rapidly” but residents were unable to leave the district to join the crowds celebrating in the streets.
“We would’ve liked to have seen him, to have congratulated him but we couldn’t go out now that it’s dark in PK5,” Mariam Haidara told AFP by phone, from the Muslim-majority area.
Muslim residents said they were proud of his nomination. “It’s the first time one of our countrymen will become a cardinal, it’s historic,” said Ahmat Kalil.
Imam Omar Kobine Layama, president of the Central African Islamic Community, too said the pope’s decision honoured the country as well as bolstered efforts by leaders of all religious denominations to set aside their differences in the interests of peace.
CAR plunged into chaos after the March 2013 ousting of long-serving president Francois Bozize, a Christian, by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance.
The coup sparked revenge attacks involving Muslim forces and Christian vigilante groups known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) militias.
Thousands were slaughtered in the spiral of atrocities that followed, with the fears of a sectarian bloodbath leading to a military intervention by former colonial power France and the deployment of UN peacekeepers.