VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis is going ahead with plans to visit the conflict-wracked Central African Republic, but his top bodyguard is doing an unusual, last-minute on-site survey to determine if security concerns require any changes to the itinerary, the Vatican said Thursday.
Francis is expected to visit the capital, Bangui, on Nov. 29-30 after first making stops in Kenya and Uganda. The Vatican said that in each country, Francis plans to use his open-sided popemobile for some transfers.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope wants to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to Central African Republic, where deadly violence between Christians and Muslims has flared recently despite the presence of more than 11,000 U.N. peacekeepers and police.
Lombardi said the Vatican is going ahead with the pope’s busy program in Bangui, which includes a visit to the main mosque, an interfaith meeting with Catholic, Evangelical and Muslim representatives, a big Mass and an evening prayer vigil. He said the Paris attacks hadn’t changed the itinerary.
Nevertheless, Francis’ top bodyguard, Domenico Gianni, is leaving early for Bangui for a last-minute survey, and will only join the papal delegation once Francis arrives in Nairobi on Wednesday for the start of the trip, Lombardi said.
“We’re following the situation, and will take decisions that can be necessary if there’s something unforeseen or unusual,” Lombardi said. “But we’re going ahead with the plan, which includes the Central African Republic.”
He said the pope firmly believes that he can contribute to the pacification of the country, and encourage dialogue between Christians and Muslims, “with his presence, his words and his prayers.”
The Vatican’s ambassador in Bangui, Monsignor Franco Coppola, said if the situation remains as is, the trip will be confirmed since the security situation appears to be improving daily before the trip.
“We made contact with all the different communities and all see in the pope’s visit an opportunity for the country,” Coppola told the Italian Catholic radio network InBlue.
Deadly violence between Christians and Muslims continues as the impoverished, landlocked country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 13. Central African Republic has been highly volatile since early 2013, when Muslim rebels overthrew the president of a decade.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5