BANGUI, Central African Republic — Pope Francis made a historic visit to the last remaining Muslim neighborhood in Central African Republic's capital on Monday, a move that almost immediately opened up a part of the divided city that had been closed off for months because of retaliatory violence between Muslim and Christian militia fighters.
Moments after he left, hundreds of Muslims who had essentially been barricaded inside by the armed Christian militias that stood guard around the perimeter burst into what had been a no-man's land only a day earlier. Some jubilant residents emboldened by the high security in the area even followed the pope into the city's center shouting "the war is over," a hopeful sign that this religiously divided capital could potentially reunite.
The visit was a bold move by the pope, who traveled into the most volatile part of Bangui in his open-air vehicle, underscoring the message of his visit here — faith over fear. He was not without heavy security though, including armed peacekeepers standing guard in the central mosque's minarets high above the crowds.
Francis had insisted on coming to the PK5 neighborhood to appeal for peace in a country where two years of Christian-Muslim violence has forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes, including thousands who have been living in a camp at the airport amid the wreckage of retired planes. The once vibrant markets of PK5 have now been largely shuttered and many of the Muslim-owned businesses stand in ruins.
About 200 men seated inside the Central Mosque welcomed Francis, who sat on a sofa. In comments to the chief imam, Francis insisted that Muslims and Christians are brothers and must behave as such.
"Christians and Muslims and members of traditional religions have lived peacefully for many years," he said. "Together, we say no to hatred, to vengeance and violence, especially that committed in the name of a religion or God."
The chief imam at the mosque, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, thanked Francis for his visit, which he said was "a symbol which we all understand."
And he urged the international community to not write the country off the books as doomed to a cycle of violence, saying the current conflict was a moment in time — "a painful moment, a regretable moment, but just a moment."
Pope Francis removed his shoes, bowed his head and stood silently at the mihrab, or area of the mosque that faces the holy Muslim city of Mecca.
The pope's visit to the mosque marked the highlight of his three-nation African tour, with previous stops in Kenya and Uganda.
Central African Republic descended into conflict in 2013 when Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president. That ushered in a brutal reign. When the rebel leader left power the following year, a swift and horrific backlash against Muslim civilians ensued.
Throughout the early months of 2014, mobs attacked Muslims in the streets, even decapitating and dismembering them and setting their corpses ablaze. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Today, the capital that once had 122,000 Muslims has only around 15,000, according to Human Rights Watch.
Before the fighting drove away many Muslims, Central African Republic was 37 percent Catholic and about 15 percent Muslim, with traditional faiths and Protestants making up the rest, Vatican figures show.
While the two opposing militias are identified by their religious affiliation, Muslim and Catholic leaders disavow the perpetrators of violence.
The conflict did not begin over religious ideology but rather found its roots in a bid for political power. Muslim rebels from a number of groups in the north united in a bid to oust the president of a decade, citing grievances he had failed to follow through on promises and had neglected their part of the country.
The anti-Balaka Christian militia then arose after the Muslim rebels took power and committed atrocities against Christians. As the conflict surged, the Christian militias began targeting symbols of Islam, destroying mosques and attacking civilians who wore traditional Islamic clothing. Economic resentment also fueled the violence. The Muslim community was made up of prosperous merchants. As soon as the Muslims fled, their shops were looted and destroyed. In some cases, anti-Balaka even spray-painted their names on the homes of departing Muslims to claim them.
Francis reminded the Muslims in the central mosque that the origins of the conflict weren't religious and urged them to put their own interests aside.
"We must remain united to prevent any action from either side that disfigures the face of God or has at its base the goal of defending particular interests at the expense of the common good," he said.
Later Monday, Pope Francis blessed a man who said he lost his right leg during a grenade attack by Muslim rebels. Stanislas Redepouzou, 28, said the December 2013 grenade attack also killed his mother and father.
On Monday, Redepouzou entered the stadium in his wheelchair decorated in the flags of Central African Republic and was approached by the pope as he made his way around the track inside. The crowd erupted into cheers, when Redepouzou popped a wheelie and spun his wheelchair around.
"I'm ready to pardon those who harmed me," Redepouzou said. "I'm ready to reconcile with them."
Associated Press journalists Jerome Delay and Bishr El-Touni contributed to this report.