Reflections on Pope Francis’ visit to CAR

Pope Francis is on his way back to Rome after an exciting and successful visit to the Central African Republic (CAR), the last stop on his Africa tour. Reka Sztopa , Concern’s interim Country Director in CAR, reflects on his two day visit.

Pilgrim of peace

There was much anticipation and hope for what Pope Francis’ visit would bring to CAR. Arriving in country over the weekend, his Holiness said “I come to the Central African Republic as a pilgrim of peace and as an apostle of hope.”

After several years of inter-community conflict here, his message of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace and hope was well received by cheering crowds everywhere. Pope Francis conducted two Holy masses in front of large crowds and opened the Holy Door for the first time in history outside of Rome, launching the Jubilee Year of Mercy. He met with imams and prayed at the Koudoukou Mosque in PK5 area, visited internally displaced person (IDP) camps, and met with religious leaders, political leaders and representatives of the international community.

People from all over the country watched live coverage on TV, online, or followed the visit closely on Twitter with hashtags #PopeinCAR and #PopeinAfrica. Distance from the events did not make them any less moving. Some of the most touching moments of his visit were his off-the-cuff remarks to the youth of CAR, his unplanned visits to an IDP site and school in the Muslim area of PK5, and when he stopped the Pope-mobile to speak with a young man in a wheelchair who had been injured in a grenade attack and who wants reconciliation. Also on route towards the stadium where he held the last event of his visit, the area of PK5 opened up for the first time in months, and Christians and Muslims alike took to the streets, visiting friends and family and celebrating together.

Devastating humanitarian crisis

Pope Francis’ visit could not have come at a better or more important time. His visit brought international attention to the devastating humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the violence and displacement of the last few years in CAR. According to the UN, there are 2.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance – almost exactly half of the population. Close to 1 million people are still displaced: about half of them outside of the country as refugees; the other half within the country. The 2015 Global Hunger Index shows CAR with the highest levels of hunger worldwide, reminding us of the connection between armed conflict and hunger. Yet despite these urgent needs, the humanitarian response for the country in 2015 is only 46% funded. The situation here seems to be being forgotten.

Concern’s work in CAR

Concern has been working in CAR since the middle of 2014, and is currently running programmes in two different parts of the country. We are playing an important role in providing access to safe drinking water for communities: by the first quarter of 2016 we will have improved drinking water access for close to 100,000 people.

A woman drinks water from one of four new water sources that Concern Worldwide rehabilitated around Dawili, which sits between the towns of Bokoum and Bossembele in Ombella-M'Poko prefecture in southern Central African Republic. Photo taken by Crystal Wells / Concern Worldwide.
A woman drinks water from one of four new water sources that Concern Worldwide rehabilitated around Dawili, which sits between the towns of Bokoum and Bossembele in Ombella-M'Poko prefecture in southern Central African Republic. Photo taken by Crystal Wells / Concern Worldwide.

Earlier in the year, we helped families who had been affected by violence and displacement to re-start their livelihoods, by giving them vouchers with which to purchase seeds and tools, and by providing opportunities to earn money to meet their basic needs while also improving local infrastructure through the rehabilitation of roads. Concern is also working with communities to promote improved hygiene and nutrition and supporting the Ministry of Health to treat acutely malnourished children and pregnant and lactating women who are most vulnerable to the effects of under-nutrition.

Today, the mood throughout the city is jubilant, and hopes are high that the visit of the Pope and his messages will be taken to heart and remembered throughout the upcoming election period. Equally important is that the spotlight the Pope’s visit has shone on CAR remains bright and focused, so that the country may get the support it needs to end the current humanitarian crisis and get back on the path to recovery and development.

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