Pope Francis was flying to Kenya on Wednesday on the first leg of a landmark trip to Africa that is fraught with security fears and faces possible disruption by torrential rain.
The 78-year-old pontiff, the third pope to visit the continent, is also scheduled to visit Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR) before flying back to Rome on Monday.
Against the backdrop of recent jihadist attacks, more than 10 000 police will be deployed in both the Kenyan and Ugandan capitals while the CAR leg of the tour could yet be curtailed or cancelled depending on security conditions in a country that has been wracked by sectarian conflict of late.
Greeting reporters on his plane, Francis said he was delighted to be making his first visit to Africa. “I go with joy to meet Kenyans, Ugandans and our brothers in Central Africa,” he said.
And he played down fears for his safety by joking: “I’m more worried about the mosquitoes.”
Ugandan police spokesperson Fred Enanga said airforce surveillance planes would be deployed “to ensure our skies are clear of any possible threat. The security is going to be heavy.”
A packed schedule will see the Pope visit a Nairobi slum, a shrine to Christian martyrs in Uganda and a mosque and a refugee camp in CAR. A total of 19 speeches will include a major statement on the environment ahead of the Paris climate change summit.
Francis was due in Nairobi at around 5pm (14:00 GMT). Vast crowds were anticipated in the Kenyan capital for his public appearances, with Thursday having been declared a public holiday.
“Karibu [Welcome to] Kenya” read Wednesday’s headlines in the Standard and Star newspapers, while the Daily Nation reported that elders from the Kalenjin tribe in the Rift Valley were planning to travel to Nairobi to present Francis with a bull.
With the bulk of the planned events outdoors, there were fears the unusually heavy El Niño rains forecast for later in the week could prove challenging with many fearing local infrastructure would be unable to cope.
The CAR leg of the trip has been maintained despite warnings from French peacekeepers there that they cannot guarantee Francis’s security.
Vatican officials say a last-minute change of programme will only happen if Francis is made aware of a precise threat that could endanger the thousands of believers expected to come and see him, many of whom will be travelling long distances from neighbouring countries.
Francis is scheduled to use an open-topped popemobile regularly during the trip.
Aides say he is determined that the sombre context will not affect his plans, particularly for the CAR part of the trip, where he is due to open a “Holy Door” in Bangui’s cathedral 10 days before the start of a Catholic Jubilee Year dedicated to the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.
On the plane, Francis said he had a special reason for wanting to visit Bangui, which he would explain on the flight back.
Vatican experts have framed the opening of the door as symbolic of the pope’s concern for those on the fringes of the Catholic community and his desire to create a “poor Church for the poor”.
It may not happen, however. CAR acting president Catherine Samba Panza could opt to cut the visit to a few hours in Bangui airport, the one area where the French military say they can be fairly sure of protecting the leader of the world’s 1.2-billion Catholics.
That would mean scrapping a visit to a camp for people displaced by CAR’s sectarian conflict, a stop to pray at a mosque in Bangui’s notoriously dangerous PK5 neighbourhood and a stadium mass.
Given the potential for thousands of pilgrims to be disappointed, Francis is said to be stubbornly resisting any curtailment of his schedule but ultimately it is his security advisers who will decide.
Francis is the third pope to visit Africa, a continent that now counts one in six of the world’s Catholics and whose importance to the Church is to grow significantly over the coming decades.
Paul VI became the first pope of modern times to set foot in Africa when he visited Uganda in 1969 and John Paul II, dubbed “the African” by a senior cleric, managed to visit 42 countries on the continent during his long papacy.
With international climate change talks in Paris coming up immediately after the Africa trip, there will be particular interest in Francis’s comments when he visits the Nairobi headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).
In Uganda, he will honour Christian martyrs, celebrating a mass to commemorate the first African saints: 22 young men burned alive in 1886 by royal order because they refused to renounce their faith or become sexual slaves. – AFP