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Pope Francis begins Africa tour amidst security threat

Catholic Pontiff, Pope Francis will go ahead with scheduled three-nation African tour despite security challenges.
Security will be paramount for the first visit by Pope Francis to an active war zone, when he heads to Central African Republic on Sunday as part of a tour that also takes in Kenya and Uganda.
Concerns have been heightened by recent terror attacks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The pontiff’s six-day trip, which begins on Wednesday, is likely to be dominated by issues of conflict and violence, poverty and inequality, and extreme homophobia.
Despite speculation that the CAR leg of the tour would be cancelled, the Vatican is pressing ahead with plans for the pope to spend 26 hours in the capital, Bangui, where his schedule includes a visit to a mosque in a volatile part of the city. However, his itinerary will be under constant review, said his spokesman, Federico Lombardi.
Francis plans to ride in an open popemobile in Bangui, Lombardi said, while denying reports he would wear a bulletproof vest. The Vatican acknowledged that the recent attacks in Paris had led to tighter security. Its security chief, Domenico Giani, is due to travel to CAR to assess the situation before the pope’s arrival.
France, which maintains a military presence in its former colony, alongside 12,000 UN peacekeepers, has warned of major security risks. “We’ve informed the Vatican authorities that Pope Francis’s visit carries risks for himself and for hundreds of thousands of believers who could be there to see him,” a Paris defence ministry source said.
“Our forces can secure the airport and provide a medical evacuation capacity in case of an accident,” the source said. CAR, which has a majority Christian population, has been in the grip of violence since Muslim rebels seized power in March 2013. More than one in five people have been forced to flee their homes.
Security is also being stepped up in Kenya and Uganda. In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, 10,000 police officers will be deployed on the streets along with another 10,000 members of the government’s youth service when about 1.4 million people are expected to turn out for a papal mass.
Francis’s penchant for walking among crowds has complicated security arrangements. “We don’t want too much military presence that hides the people or that puts a barrier between the pope and the people,” Stephen Okello, the priest coordinating the papal visit, has said. “The pope wants to be with the people.”
Kenyan authorities are building on the experience of Barack Obama’s visit to Nairobi in July. Then the capital was in near shutdown, with a huge US military presence flown in to protect the president. “Unlike the visit by Obama when the government encouraged Kenyans to stay at home, we are encouraging Kenyans to flock into the city in their numbers to cheer the pope and celebrate mass with him,” said a presidential spokesperson, Manoah Esipisu.
Kenya has been the target of the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab, with 148 mostly Christian students killed in an attack on Garissa University near the border with Somalia in April, and 67 people killed in Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping mall in September 2013.
In Uganda, more than 2 million people are expected to attend a papal mass at the Martyrs’ Shrine near Kampala, which commemorates the burning to death in 1886 of 32 young Christian men for refusing to renounce their faith. The 22 Catholics among them were canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1964. The Ugandan army, police and intelligence organisations are coordinating preparations for the visit. More than 10,000 police officers would be on the streets in and around the capital, said Fred Enanga, Uganda police spokesperson, adding “they will be very vigilant”.
The trip is Francis’s first visit to Africa. According to John Allen, associate editor of Crux “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 had a strong interfaith dimension, Allen added, sending a strong signal in places where religious conflict is a powerful force. In CAR, Francis “will speak both as a diplomatic troubleshooter and as a pastor, arguing not just on political grounds but religious and theological grounds”.
The pope’s brief visit to Bangui 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. Human rights violations have included extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and endemic rape and sexual violence. According to the Christian aid agency Tearfund the conflict has been framed as Christian versus Muslim – respectively 80% and 15% of the population – but rival militias are based more on ethnic identity than religion, and control of CAR’s mineral wealth underlies the struggle.
Faith leaders have played a crucial role, providing refuge in churches and mosques, offering humanitarian assistance and forming the Inter-Religious Platform to mediate between armed groups and communities and call for international action. “Advocacy from these actors is believed to have triggered tougher diplomatic action by the United States and put pressure on France to take stronger action.”
Francis has said his visit to 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.”
Omar Kobine Layama, President of the Islamic Council in CAR, said: “This will be a key event for all Central Africans, whatever their religious affiliations. We’re hoping the Holy Father will bring a clear message about the unity of believers, interfaith dialogue, human rights and peace, which could really liberate us and help rebuild social links the various armed groups have destroyed.”
Francis starts his trip in Nairobi, where he will visit the Kangemi settlement, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. He will meet congregants of the Jesuit-led parish of St Joseph’s the Worker, where he has reportedly instructed no special arrangements should 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… seated right next to him. It is they we will present as our riches,” said Peter Magu Charman of Catholic Men Association.
About 100,000 people live in shacks in Kangemi, where crime, drug abuse and sexual violence are rife and many inhabitants are unemployed and illiterate. “We try to give hope to the poor and the downtrodden and, since his inauguration; the Pope has shown that these are the ideals that he cherishes too. So in a sense I would say that he is actually coming home,” said Magu.
In Uganda, the Martyrs’ Shrine is being spruced up before the papal visit on the middle leg of his tour, with drains cleared and roads paved. Portraits of three popes – Paul VI, John Paul II and Francis – stand close to the shrine.
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 that Francis – who famously said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuality – will deliver a message of tolerance in the face of Uganda’s draconian stance. Archbishop John Baptist Odama, President of the Uganda Episcopal Conference, said he did not know if the Pope would intervene. “Certainly I hold the teachings of the church that homosexuality practice or encouraging unions is not the correct approach,”  he said.

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