ROME — A few minutes before Pope Francis and his entourage left the Kampala airport in Uganda, he reportedly told the pilot that he’d like to go to the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), but if it was too difficult, the pilot should just fly over and he’d parachute down.
It was classic Francis. When he was warned not to embark on his six-day journey to Kenya, Uganda and the C.A.R. out of safety concerns following the Paris attacks, he quipped that the only thing he was afraid of in Africa was mosquitos.
As it turns out, he was right about the calculated risks.
His visits to Kenya and Uganda went as planned, with the pontiff drawing lively crowds of thousands of followers to hear his words and receive his blessing.
Then, on Sunday, he embarked on the most dangerous leg of his trip. Earlier the French defense ministry warned that he should not go, and even the security forces in C.A.R. said they could not guarantee the pontiff’s safety, which would have surely tested even this pope’s faith.
But he arrived in Bangui just fine, where he was greeted with a vigorous, albeit tightly guarded, airport ceremony and escorted by armed United Nations guards riding shotgun with machine guns to keep him safe as he first met the people he had to (dignitaries and government officials) and then went on to see those he wanted to (a refugee camp with 4,000 people displaced by the ongoing war).
One journalist traveling with the pontiff tweeted a picture of the heavy machinery that was pulled out to ensure his security, including an armored car with a gun turret on top.
On Monday, the pope made what was perhaps his most significant visit of the entire trip, to the Grand Mosque of Koudoukou, which has been a symbolic site of the deadly struggles between Christians and Muslims in the region.
According to the BBC correspondent who was traveling with the pope Francis made such an impact that Muslim rebels attended a Mass he gave, and after his visit some wore T-shirts adorned with the pope’s picture.
According to a statement put out by the Vatican after Francis went to the mosque, he called for peace between the contending faiths in C.A.R. “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters. We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such,” Francis said. “Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace. Christians, Muslims and members of the traditional religions have lived together in peace for many years. They ought, therefore, to remain united in working for an end to every act which, from whatever side, disfigures the Face of God and whose ultimate aim is to defend particular interests by any and all means, to the detriment of the common good.”
“Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself,” the pope said. “God is peace, salam.”
After the mosque visit, the pope took the imam with him around the neighborhood in his pope-mobile. According to reporters traveling with Francis the pope seemed to see that as a highlight of the trip. “The crowds, the joy, the ability to celebrate even with an empty stomach," were some of the most poignant impressions the pope shared after his first trip to Africa, according to Catholic News Agency.
On the flight back to Rome, he spent an hour talking with the press traveling with him, and touched a variety of topics, including Islamic fundamentalism and the attacks in Paris.
“Fundamentalism is a disease that is found in all religions,” said Pope Francis. “We Catholics have some. I can say this because it is my church,” he added. “Religious fundamentalism isn't religion, it's idolatry. You cannot cancel a whole religion because there is a group or many groups of fundamentalists at certain moments of history.”
On Dec. 8, the pope will open the holy doors of St. Peter’s Basilica and kick off a Jubilee Year that many worry could invite violence. But it seems that doesn’t worry this fearless pope either.