RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Pope Francis touched down in Bangui, Central African Republic today, the final leg of his first ever Africa tour. Central African Republic, or CAR, has been plagued by tensions between Christian and Muslim militias. And the pontiff arrived under heavy security. His plans include a visit to a Catholic Church as well as a mosque. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been traveling with the pope, and she joins us now from Bangui. Thanks for being with us, Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: Pope Francis's visit to CAR is being called his first to a war zone. Can you describe what the scene was like for his arrival?
POGGIOLI: Oh, security at the airport here was the heaviest it's ever been for a papal visit. There were dozens of U.N. peacekeepers, as well as a lot of local police. A helicopter hovered over the airport, and there was an extra contingent of Vatican gendarmes who arrived a week ago. They were all wearing flak jackets. And unprecedented in papal trips, a U.N. soldier carrying a rifle rode shotgun on the minibuses carrying the reporters accompanying the pope. There were lots of machine guns and tanks along the road that took the pope to a camp for displaced people, Saint Sauveur. It was an amazing scene. Close to 4,000 people live in ramshackle sheds or under makeshift tents that are made of just plastic covering with the U.N. logo. It was extremely hot, but the mood was euphoric as the pope arrived, walking down red dirt paths, patting the heads and shaking hands of the many hundreds of children cheering him and holding signs with the words, in French, unity, peace and love. Women wearing turbans and colorful dresses were dancing to a drumbeat. And the pope told the crowd, my wish for you and for all Central Africans is peace. And as the kids left - as the pope left, the kids chanted, papa has come to see his children. Now the war is over. We will have peace.
MARTIN: As you mentioned, this is a war that has been going on a long time. Can you give us a bit of history on the conflict?
POGGIOLI: Well, it started about two years ago. People here say it started mostly as a power grab between Muslim militias called Seleka and the mostly Christian militias called anti-Balaka. Both come from rural areas. There are also reports that the Seleka may have among them some foreign extremists from neighboring countries fighting with them. For what started as a fight for power between rival factions, it has turned into a sectarian civil war with both sides committing atrocities against the other. And the fighting has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. There's an estimated 800,000 displaced. France sent soldiers in 2013 in attempt to stop the fighting. And there's a U.N. peacekeeping mission of more than 3,000 soldiers.
MARTIN: The pope also visited Uganda and Kenya on this trip. Sylvia, what did the pope want to accomplish in Africa and did he do it?
POGGIOLI: Well, you know, Francis is the champion of the downtrodden, the poor and the needy. And he's also the environmental pope who scolds wealthy nations for exploiting the world's raw materials. Africa's both the poorest continent and one rich in many raw materials. It's also the continent where Catholicism is growing very fast. But it's also facing competition from Islam and from evangelicals. And there's been Muslim-Christian tension and violence in several places. It's not surprising he came here. So his two aims were first, fostering Muslim-Christian dialogue to combat extremism and help promote peace and reconciliation in places such as the Central African Republic. It's too soon to say whether he succeeded, everywhere - but everywhere he went, he received a rapturous, loving welcome.
MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli from Bangui, Central African Republic. Thanks, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.