BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Pope Francis made a historic visit to the last remaining Muslim neighborhood in Central African Republic's capital Monday, a move that almost immediately opened up a part of the divided city troubled for months by retaliatory violence between Muslim and Christian militias.
Moments after he left, hundreds of Muslims who had essentially been barricaded inside by armed Christians burst into what had been a no-man's land only a day earlier. Some jubilant residents even followed the pope into the city center shouting, "The war is over!" — a hopeful sign for potential reunification.
The bold visit by the pope, who traveled into the most volatile part of Bangui in his open-air popemobile, underscored his message of faith over fear. He was not without heavy security, though, including armed peacekeepers in the central mosque's minarets high above the crowds.
Francis had insisted on visiting 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 living in a camp at the airport, amid wrecked planes. The neighborhood's once vibrant markets are now largely shuttered and many of the Muslim-owned businesses stand in ruins.
At the Central Mosque, Pope Francis removed his shoes, bowed his head and stood silently at the mihrab, or area of the mosque that faces Mecca.
About 200 men seated inside the mosque welcomed Francis, who sat on a sofa next to the imam. In comments, Francis said that Muslims and Christians are brothers and must treat each other as such.
"Christians and Muslims and members of traditional religions have lived peacefully for many years," the pontiff said. "Together, we say 'no' to hatred, to vengeance and violence, especially that committed in the name of a religion or God."
The mosque's chief imam, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, thanked Francis for his visit, calling it "a symbol which we all understand."
He urged the international community not to write the country off as doomed to a cycle of violence, saying the current conflict was a moment in time — "a painful moment, a regrettable moment, but just a moment."
The imam later joined Francis on the popemobile as it toured the area. Speaking to reporters aboard the papal plane en route home, Francis recalled that shared ride, saying that "these small gestures" of friendship and fellowship between Christians and Muslims were crucial.
The pope's visit to the mosque was the highlight of a five-day, three-nation African tour that included 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.
Mobs attacked Muslims in the streets, even decapitating and dismembering them and setting their corpses ablaze. Tens of thousands of Muslims fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Today, the capital that once had 122,000 Muslims has only around 15,000, according to New York-based 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, according to Vatican figures.
While the two opposing militias are identified by their religious affiliations, Muslim and Catholic leaders disavow the perpetrators of violence.
The conflict did not begin over religious ideology but rather in a bid for political power. Muslim rebel groups in the north united in a bid to oust the president, who they accused of failing to follow through on promises and neglecting their part of the country.
A grouping of Christian militias, known as the anti-Balaka, 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, and as they fled, their shops were looted and destroyed. In some cases, Christian militiamen even spray-painted their names on the homes of fleeing Muslims in a bid to claim them.
Francis reminded the Muslims in the mosque that the origins of the conflict weren't religious and urged them to put aside their differences.
"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, before celebrating Mass at the Bangui sports stadium, 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 attack also killed his mother and father.
Entering the stadium in a wheelchair decorated with flags from Central African Republic and elsewhere, Redepouzou approached the pope as he was making his way around the track in the popemobile. Francis stopped, blessed Redepouzou, and then continued on, greeting the faithful. The crowd erupted in cheers as Redepouzou popped a wheelie and spun his wheelchair around in joy after receiving the blessing.
"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.