Located in the Koudoukou neighborhood of the Central African Republic capital, the Grande Mosquée de Bangui is a white and green stucco building with three minarets and gold-painted star-and-crescents adorning its roofline. Large fans cool the interior and loudspeakers mounted onto the minarets announce the call to prayer five times a day. During particularly large gatherings, worshippers will overflow into the dirt path in front of the mosque arranging their prayer mats in neat rows.
The spread of Islam in Africa spans more than a millennium. Beginning in the seventh century, Muslim Arabs made their way into North Africa. From there, Muslim traders continued to spread the religion throughout West and East Africa. What is now the Central African Republic was likely among the later regions for Islam to reach, perhaps beginning in the 17th century. Today, about 10 percent of the Central African Republic’s population is Muslim, nearly 570,000 people.
Since declaring independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic has experienced a series of conflicts. In 2012, a civil war erupted throughout the country, spurred on in part by tensions between Muslim and Christian groups. In April 2014, the Grande Mosquée de Bangui was looted after armed peacekeepers escorted many Muslims out of the conflict zone.
On November 29, 2015, Pope Francis visited the Grande Mosquée de Bangui, as well as the nearby Notre-Dame of Bangui Cathedral. The mosque is in the PK5 district of the capital city, an area Christian militia groups have laid an ongoing siege to since 2013. Once inside the mosque, Francis preached a message of peace and harmony saying, “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.” He concluded his address with the traditional Arabic greeting, “Salam alaikum!” or “peace be upon you.” Francis’s 26-hour visit to Bangui is the first time a pope has ever visited an active war zone.