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Amid A Violent Religious Rift, Pope Preaches Harmony In CAR


We begin this evening in Africa, where Pope Francis is making his first visit as pontiff. The pope is in the Central African Republic. It's the third and final leg of his trip. That nation also known as CAR is deeply divided along sectarian and communal lines. It's a conflict that's been carried out between warring Christian and Muslim militias. We wanted to hear more about the pope's message to the Central African Republic as well as the rest of his trip. So we are glad NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is with us. She is an Bangui, which is the capital of the Central African Republic. Sylvia, thanks so much for being with us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: What's the pope been doing there on his first day in Bangui?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, he brushed aside security risks and he stuck to his schedule, which included a visit to an overcrowded camp for people displaced by civil war and a ceremony in Bangui Cathedral. The most moving event was at the camp where close to 4,000 people live in pretty miserable conditions. They were euphoric, cheering and dancing as the pope walked down red dirt paths lined with hundreds of children holding signs with the words love, unity and peace. And after the pope left, the children chanted papa's visit to his children means the war is over. We will have peace. It was a very moving scene. And then in the afternoon at the cathedral, Francis opened the holy door, giving a local start to the Catholic Church's Jubilee Year on the theme of mercy. This was a major break with tradition. Holy years are always opened at the Vatican. It was very symbolic to stress mercy and forgiveness in a place of conflict. Francis said Bangui is the spiritual capital of the world at this moment.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Has he had anything specific to say about the conflict there, something specifically targeted to that?

POGGIOLI: Well, when he met the interim president this morning, Catherine Samba-Panza, he told her that he hopes next month's scheduled elections will enable the country to embark serenely on a new chapter of history. He called on the government and civic leaders to promote reconciliation, and he said I come as a pilgrim and on apostle of hope.

MARTIN: How was his message received? You just - you mentioned that in the displaced person's camp that he went to he was very warmly received. I'm getting the impression that maybe people thought he might not come given the situation there. What about on the rest of his trip? How has he been received have so far?

POGGIOLI: Oh, well, here, of course - here in the Central African Republic it's just been euphoric because in fact as the president said, the fact that he dismissed security risks and came here is a victory of faith over fear and disbelief, a lesson of courage and determination. And everywhere he's gone, he's received a tremendous welcome. He's the champion of the poor, and I think Africans - Catholics and non-Catholics - see a kindred spirit from the global cells. The first pope from what was once called the Third World, his main message has been peace, reconciliation and forgiveness and beware multinationals and big powers that want to exploit your natural resources. And he's stressed the importance of interfaith relations and the vital need to engage in Muslim-Christian dialogue. The riskiest moment of his trip comes tomorrow when Francis will visit a Muslim enclave and its mosque. It's an area encircled by Christian militias, a focal point of a recent surge in violence. It's a very unsafe location, but he wants to go there.

MARTIN: I should've mentioned that earlier he was in Kenya and Uganda. Overall, Sylvia, how would you assess this trip? I mean, you've been watching this pope very closely, seeing how he has kind of maneuvered in other parts of the world. How would you assess this trip overall?

POGGIOLI: I mean, if it's turnout in the streets and in the squares and at the events that have been organized, it's a huge success. I think - I think something has clicked very much between this first - the Latin-American pope and the African continent - at least of the three countries that he has visited.

MARTIN: Thank you very much. That was NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She's in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.