Bangui (dpa) – Pope Francis on Monday called on Christians and Muslims to unite against violence exercised in the name of religion and to “say no to hatred.”
“Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” the pope said during a visit to a mosque in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, where inter-religious violence has killed thousands of people since 2013.
“We are well aware that the recent events and acts of violence which have shaken your country were not grounded in properly religious motives,” Francis said at the Koudoukou mosque, located in a flashpoint Muslim neighbourhood.
He called on Christians, Muslims and followers of African traditional religions to work “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,” the pope said.
The pope and the imam of the mosque observed a moment of silence in front of the mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca.
Francis also visited displaced people staying in the area, while hundreds of UN peacekeepers secured the neighbourhood, some of them surveying it from the minarets of the mosque.
On Sunday, the pontiff had met with representatives of evangelical communities, calling the lack of unity between Christian churches a “scandal.”
After the meeting with Muslim representatives, Francis addressed tens of thousands of the faithful at an open-air Mass. He rode into the stadium in the Popemobile, waving to ecstatic crowds. Dancers dressed in green surrounded bishops as they mounted to the podium.
In his homily, the pope called on Catholics to “forge bonds of friendship, to dialogue with those who are different than ourselves, to forgive those who have wronged us.”
He also urged them to be messengers of the Gospel “whom our brothers and sisters of every ethnic group, religion and culture, await, often without knowing it.”
The Mass was followed by a brief farewell ceremony at Bangui airport, before the papal plane took off for Rome.
The 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff arrived Sunday in CAR for the last leg of his six-day African tour, which first took him to Kenya and then to Uganda.
He met with CAR interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, visited a camp of displaced people and celebrated a Mass in Bangui Cathedral.
Violence by Christian and Muslim militias has claimed thousands of lives and displaced about a quarter of CAR’s 4.7 million people since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew president Francois Bozize, a Christian, in March 2013.
Francis came to CAR despite concern for his security. Local security forces received backing from UN peacekeepers and French troops, which together number about 12,000 in CAR.
Francis’ first visit to a crisis zone was his 11th trip abroad since he became pope in 2013.
Africa is home to an estimated 180 million Catholics, and their numbers are growing rapidly.