Pope Francis has called for unity in the Central African Republic (CAR), a country torn by strife between Christians and Muslims, urging its citizens to "avoid the temptation of fear of others".
The 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff arrived on Sunday morning in the capital Bangui, the last leg of a six-day African tour which also included Kenya and Uganda.
Unity "is to be lived and built up on the basis of the marvellous diversity of our environment, avoiding the temptation of fear of others, of the unfamiliar, of what is not part of our ethnic group, our political views or our religious confession", he said in a speech before interim President Catherine Samba-Panza and other dignitaries.
The acting president asked for "forgiveness" from Pope Francis over the sectarian violence that has gripped
the country over the past two years and praised the pope for his visit despite security fears.
"Central Africans have inflicted unspeakable suffering on other Central Africans. And for that, the sons and daughters of this country must recognise their faults and ask for forgiveness ... that your blessing will transform into a catalyst for the reconstruction of this country," she said.
Muslim as well as Catholic representatives came to the airport to welcome Francis.
"The Holy Father has not come to Central Africa for the Catholics, but for Central Africans. It is a good sign of a reconciliation between Muslims and Central Africans," said El Adji Tchakpabrede, a representative of the country's Islamic community.
'Pilgrim of peace'
Describing himself as a "pilgrim of peace", the pontiff said the local Catholic Church would work for reconciliation.
Francis was expected to use the Popemobile during his visit, despite concern that the local authorities would not be able to guarantee his safety.
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Local security forces are backed up by more than 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers and French troops present in the country.
CAR has suffered sectarian violence since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew President Francois Bozize, a Christian, in March 2013. Thousands have been killed, and about a quarter of the 4.7 milliom population has been displaced by the conflict.
There was concern that either side could use the papal visit to break the tense calm and instigate new violence.
Africa is home to an estimated 180 million Catholics, and their numbers are growing faster than anywhere else in the world.
|Thousands have been killed, and about a quarter of the 4.7 million population has been displaced by the conflict [Reuters]