Pope Francis’s planned visit to the troubled Central African Republic (CAR) remains uncertain because of concerns over security in the chronically unstable country, a top Vatican official admitted in comments published Tuesday.
“We will see on the basis of the situation on the ground at the time whether we go ahead with the third and final leg (of the Pope’s African trip) in Central Africa,” Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, told Avvenire, the newspaper of Italy’s Conference of Bishops.
“The pope has a very strong desire to visit Central Africa and for the moment the programme remains unchanged. But it is possible that a different decision will be taken at the last minute if the local situation does not allow it.”
The pope is scheduled to visit the CAR, which has been hit by conflict between Christians and Muslims, on November 29 and 30 as part of a tour also taking in Kenya and Uganda.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians are expected to travel to see him from neighbouring Cameroon and Congo.
France, which has troops stationed in its former colony in support of a UN peacekeeping force, warned last week that the planned papal visit was risky, with Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian saying it would be difficult to ensure the pope’s security beyond the capital Bangui’s airport.
The CAR has witnessed regular sectarian bloodletting since a March 2013 coup plunged the impoverished country into chaos.
The most recent outburst, at the end of September, left 61 people dead.
The UN has 12,000 peacekeepers in the country and is planning to deploy more than 1,100 additional troops before elections set for December 27.
Some of the reinforcements could be in place in time for the pope’s visit, UN officials said last week.
During his trip, Francis, 78, is scheduled to tour a camp for people displaced by conflict, visit a mosque in Bangui and celebrate mass in a stadium in the capital.