Could Pope Francis bring together African Muslims and Christians?
The Pontiff has kicked off his African tour, arriving in Nairobi Wednesday. In Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, he will address matters of poverty, corruption, and interfaith healing.
“Grata Franciscus Pontifex,” headlines in Kenya read – a message in Latin to welcome the arrival of Pope Francis on his first African tour.
In Kenya, Uganda, and finally, the Central African Republic, the pope plans to address poverty, government corruption, and the rift between Muslims and Christians on the continent.
Arriving in Nairobi Wednesday, Francis is set to encounter crowds lining up the streets, followed by a public Mass at Nairobi University Thursday, which the government has declared a national holiday in honor of the pontiff.
"I go with joy to meet Kenyans, Ugandans and our brothers in Central Africa," he told journalists on his plane.
About 30 percent of Kenyans are Catholic, so millions are expected to attend the Mass. But Christians won’t be the only ones looking forward to his appearance. A leading Muslim cleric, as reported by the BBC, welcomed the pope as an usher of hope for the poor and downtrodden in Kenya.
Security will be a major concern – the government said up to 10,000 police officers may be deployed during his three-day visit.
In recent years, Kenya has been a prime target of attacks by Islamic extremists. In April, nearly 150 people were killed at Garissa University when al-Shabab militants stormed campus with guns and bombs. The Somali terrorist group is also guilty for a 2013 attack in a shopping mall that killed 67.
His second stop, Uganda, has suffered fatal terrorist attacks as well, including one in 2014 that ravaged three cities and resulted in the death of 93 people. There, police said they will deploy 12,000 officers. The pope will hold Mass on Saturday and then speak to young people, a large demographic in the continent.
But the most dangerous leg of his trip is the Central African Republic – perhaps even the most dangerous locale any pope has ever visited, as the country is currently in the gripes of violence between Muslim rebels and Christian militias.
“The pope wants to go to the Central African Republic,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in a press briefing last week. “And, like any wise person would do, we are monitoring the situation.”
The pope himself, however, seems less than nervous. On his way over, he brushed off concerns of his safety with a joke: "To tell you the truth, the only thing I'm concerned about is the mosquitoes. Did you bring your spray?"
In the Central African Republic, the pope plans on visiting a mosque in the capital Bangui, where he may traverse one of the city’s most dangerous districts.
In early 2013, CAR, one of the least developed nations in the world, fell to Muslim rebels after they ousted President Francois Bozize. Since then, the country endured sectarian violence in spite of UN peacekeeping efforts.
Despite security concerns, Pope Francis remains determined to deliver his message.
“Your country has known for too long a situation of violence and insecurity where many of you have become innocent victims,” he said in a video message sent to Central African Republic Catholics this week.
“My aim is to bring you comfort, consolation and hope in the name of Jesus.”