By Loucoumane Coulibaly
YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered for Christmas mass at the giant Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro late on Thursday to mark the end of a year marred by COVID-19 and a disputed election that opened deep wounds in the West African nation.
The chapel, whose towering dome is modelled after St Peter's basilica in the Vatican, sits on the edge of Ivory Coast's administrative capital, surrounded by flat savannah.
After nightfall on Thursday, worshippers descended on the church, observing anti-virus measures, including social distancing and hand washing before attending midnight mass.
"My message during these Christmas festivities is to remind our dear compatriots once again that we have one religion, one ethnicity, which is peace, which is a platform for the progress of this nation," said Franck Allatin, rector of the Basilica.
The economy of Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, has been hit hard by the coronavirus as world demand for chocolate falls and trade slows.
President Alassane Ouattara's decision to run for a third term in an October election sparked deadly violence along ethnic lines that brought back memories of a 2010-11 civil war in which 3,000 people died.
During the war, the basilica became a point of refuge for those seeking respite from conflict inside its looming stained glass windows.
"I tell myself that 2021 will be a year of hope and a year of peace," said Marius Kouassi, a teacher from Yamoussoukro who came to celebrate Christmas with his wife.
"That is why we are here."
(Editing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Dan Grebler)