BANGUI, Central African Republic - The popemobile rolled into the center of this country's civil war on Monday, crossing the dangerous border between Christian and Muslim neighborhoods as Pope Francis launched what may be his boldest diplomatic effort yet.
Hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers patrolled the streets, AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, while residents waved white flags symbolizing peace - and their hopes for an end to a two-year conflict in which more than 6,000 people have been killed, mostly along religious lines.
It was the first time in recent memory that a pope has plunged into the middle of an armed conflict. When Francis arrived at the city's Koudoukou central mosque, a group of community leaders and schoolchildren were waiting for him. During a ceremony inside, Francis bowed toward the Muslim holy city of Mecca and sat on a plush white sofa next to the imam.
"Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters," he said, his voice booming from an speaker to the crowd overflowing from the mosque. "We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such."
For weeks, this very visit had been in doubt. Foreign troops in this former French colony had said they could not guarantee Francis's safety. Violence continued until the morning the popemobile took off for PK-5, the Muslim enclave that has dwindled from 122,000 to 15,000 inhabitants in two years because of militia assaults. Many people questioned whether the pontiff's visit would trigger a hostile response from a war-weary population.
But as roaring crowds lined the roads, standing in front of long-shuttered businesses and schools, it became clear that most people here saw the pope's arrival as a game-changing moment - perhaps the beginning of a new peace process or renewed international attention.
"I still can't believe he came," said Gaspar Ndjawe, a local resident. "We need his message of hope. The people are tired of this life."
There is no sadder symbol of this war's grinding impact on the population than PK-5. It was once the commercial center of Bangui before it became the heart of a conflict between two bands of militias: the mostly Muslim Seleka, which in 2012 overthrew the country's president, François Bozize; and the mostly Christian anti-Balaka, which rose up in opposition.
The conflict has devolved into a cycle of brutal killings and reprisals. Even though it began as a struggle over political power and access to state resources, many of its victims have been targeted simply for being Christian or Muslim. When Francis spoke at the mosque, he condemned that sectarian violence.
"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," he said.
For more than a year, a group of Christian and Muslim religious leaders had pleaded with Francis to visit Bangui.
"He's one of the most important religious leaders in the world, and I thought 'Maybe he will help us reinforce the message of peace,' " said Omar Layama Kobine, a prominent imam who was part of the group.