Security will be paramount for the first visit by Pope Francis to an active war zone, when he heads to the Central African Republic (CAR) on Sunday as part of a tour that also took him to Kenya and Uganda.
Concerns have been heightened by terror attacks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The pontiff’s six-day trip, which began on Wednesday, may well be dominated by issues of conflict, violence, poverty, inequality and extreme homophobia.
It is Francis’s first visit to Africa. John Allen, associate editor of Crux, says: “It’s an opportunity for him to say as pope that Africa is very important to the Catholic Church. It’s where Catholicism is growing most rapidly, and it’s a chance for him to show some love. But it’s also an opportunity for him to learn, to put in some time on the ground.”
The trip’s interfaith dimension, Allen added, sends a signal in places where religious conflict is powerful.
The pope’s brief visit to Bangui, the CAR’s capital, will focus international attention on what has been called a forgotten conflict, in which thousands of people have been killed, almost a million displaced, and property looted and destroyed.
Francis has said his visit to the CAR is to promote mercy in an “afflicted and tormented” nation. Expectations among faith leaders are high. “We’re full of hope the holy father’s presence will bring great benefits by enabling our people to achieve reconciliation,” Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, secretary general of the bishops’ conference, told the Catholic News Service.
Imam Omar Kobine Layama, president of the CAR’s Islamic council, said: “This will be a key event for all Central Africans, whatever their religious affiliations.”
Francis started his trip in Nairobi, where he visited Kangemi informal settlement, one of the city’s poorest areas. He was set to meet congregants of the Jesuit-led parish of St Joseph the Worker, where he has reportedly instructed that no special arrangements be made for his visit.
“We will not give him gold or silver. Our richness will be in the form of the congregants that this church was set up to reach. We will have the poor, the sick, the needy … right next to him. It is they we will present as our riches,” Peter Magu, chairperson of the Catholic Men Association, told Standardmedia.co.ke.
About 100 000 people live in Kagemi’s shacks: crime, drug abuse and sexual violence are rife, as is unemployment and illiteracy.
Many will be watching the pope’s speeches carefully for comments on the issue of homosexuality, which is illegal in Uganda. A law signed last year by President Yoweri Museveni compelled citizens to report suspected homosexual activity to the police, triggering increased levels of prejudice, violence and discrimination against the gay community. The law was later annulled, but is expected to be reintroduced.
Gay rights activists will be hoping Francis – who said: “Who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuality – will deliver a message of tolerance in the face of Uganda’s draconian stance. – © Guardian News & Media 2015