VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis’ trip to Central African Republic, which has been rocked by strife between Christians and Muslims, is still scheduled to go ahead despite warnings from France of major security risks, Vatican sources said on Friday.
The former French colony descended into inter-religious violence two and a half years ago after mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, sparking reprisal killings by Christian anti-balaka militias.
The pope is due to visit the country on Nov. 28-29 despite intensifying violence that has killed dozens in the capital Bangui since late September. His trip is scheduled to include a visit to a mosque in one of Bangui’s most dangerous districts.
French officials have said the pope and those who turn out to see him would be in danger and have hinted that the Vatican should consider scrapping the trip or scaling it back.
“We’ve informed the Vatican authorities that Pope Francis’ visit carries risks for himself and for hundreds of thousands believers who could be there to see him,” a defense ministry source said in Paris.
One Vatican source said the pope “really wants to go and skipping it would be seen as a defeat”. Another Vatican source said he may be forced to shorten the trip or limit the venues to safer areas.
France has troops in the country but the defense ministry source said: “Our forces can secure the airport and provide a medical evacuation capacity in case of an accident” but no more than that.
Central African Republic’s political and religious leaders have sought to reassure the Vatican.
“The arrival of the pope will be a great blessing, and I want it to happen regardless of the fate reserved for us,” interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian, told French radio station RTL on Thursday.
General Chrysostome Sambia, minister of public security, said the government had a plan to secure the visit.
A local official and state radio reported on Friday that at least 22 people had been killed in a string of raids on villages in Central African Republic this week.
France sent soldiers in 2013 in an attempt to stem the bloodshed. Muslims and Christians have since split into segregated communities. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled to the far north, creating a de facto partition.
About 80 percent of the impoverished country’s population is Christian, 15 percent is Muslim and five percent animist.
Earlier this year France began withdrawing some of its troops, which had numbered around 2,000 at the peak of the mission. The country’s U.N. mission, MINUSCA, has been struggling to maintain order.
The French withdrawal has now been halted until after long-delayed presidential and parliamentary elections in December. A U.N. official said some MINUSCA reinforcements intended for the electoral period would be in place to help with security for the pope’s visit.
Additional reporting by Marine Pannetier in Paris and Crispin Dembassa-Kette in Bangui