Pope to visit mosque in conflict-ridden Central Africa

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Pope Francis arrives at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic, on November 29, 2015

Pope Francis arrives at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic, on November 29, 2015 (AFP Photo/Gianluigi Guercia)

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Pope Francis is set to visit a mosque in a flashpoint area of the Central African Republic's capital on Monday, as he wraps up his first visit to the continent.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics will meet members of the Muslim community and visit the Koudoukou mosque in the PK5 district, a maze of red dirt roads and flimsy shacks at the heart of recent sectarian violence.

A little after 08:00 am (0700 GMT) Francis will meet with five imams at the mosque, then hold a ceremony nearby intended to promote religious reconciliation.

Wrapping up his three-country African tour, Francis will then celebrate a huge mass at the capital's 20,000-seat Barthelemy Boganda Stadium before heading back to the Vatican.

The pontiff has hammered home the message of peace during his visit to the Central African Republic, which has been wracked by tit-for-tat violence between Muslim rebels and Christian vigilante groups.

"We are all brothers," the pope said on Sunday as he visited a camp housing some 3,000 internally displaced people in the heart of Bangui.

Francis also called for unity, urging people to avoid "the temptation of fear of others, of the unfamiliar, of what is not part of our ethnic group, our political views or our religious denomination".

His message -- and the fact that he actually visited the country, despite significant security concerns -- struck a chord with locals and drew pledges of peace and forgiveness.

- 'Ready to forget' -

"We should eat together, we should live together with Muslims," said Clarisse Mbai, a mother who lost all her worldly possessions in inter-religious violence.

"They looted everything, they burnt my house and I have nothing but I am ready to forget," she said.

Nicole Ouabangue, whose husband was hacked to death with an axe, said she had heard many speeches before but the pope's words were "different".

"Pope Francis has more influence. If there is anybody who can resolve our problems on Earth, it is him," she said.

The landlocked Central African Republic descended into bloodshed after longtime Christian leader Francois Bozize was ousted by rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka force in March 2013.

The coup triggered a wave of violence between ex-Seleka members and Christian "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) militias, plunging the former French colony into its worst crisis since independence in 1960.

On Sunday, the 78-year-old pontiff opened a "holy door" during a mass at Bangui Cathedral, marking the beginning of a Jubilee Year dedicated to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Although the year will formally be inaugurated on December 8, opening the door marked its symbolic start. Until now, such a gesture has only ever taken place in the Church's headquarters in the Vatican or in Rome.

"Bangui has become the spiritual capital of the world," the pontiff said.

The country's interim president Catherine Samba-Panza asked the pope for "forgiveness from the bottom of my heart" for two years of "evil" sectarian violence she dubbed "a descent into hell".