Bangui - Central African Republic's (CAR) interim president Catherine Samba-Panza on Sunday asked for "forgiveness" from Pope Francis for two years of "evil" sectarian violence she dubbed "a descent into hell".
"Central Africans have inflicted unspeakable suffering on other Central Africans," she said on meeting the pope in the capital, Bangui, where the situation remains volatile.
"On behalf of the ruling class of this country but also in the name of everyone who has played any part in this descent into hell, I confess all the evil that has been done here throughout the course of history and ask for forgiveness from the bottom of my heart."
CAR descended into bloodshed more than two years ago after longtime leader Francois Bozize, a Christian, was ousted by mainly Muslim rebels, triggering the worst crisis since independence in 1960.
More than 12 000 peacekeepers are deployed in the impoverished former French colony - including in Bangui where Francis will spend just over 24 hours.
"The very presence of Pope Francis in Bangui is seen as a victory, a victory of faith over fear, over unbelief and a victory of compassion and solidarity," said Samba-Panza after the 78-year-old pontiff's arrival in the country, the last leg of a three-nation Africa tour.
"You have chosen to visit a country destroyed to its very foundations by decades of repeated crises, a country which lives through dramatic events every day.
"You have come to demonstrate your compassion for and your solidarity with a people tormented by hate and the spirit of vengeance, a people torn by endless conflict but which, despite everything, has not completely lost its faith."