Pope Francis began a three-country pilgrimage to Africa on Wednesday, arriving for his first visit to a continent that’s witnessing huge growth in Catholicism but is also plagued by war and terrorism.
The pope is expected to draw millions to an open air Mass in Kenya on Thursday — declared a public holiday and national day of prayer and reflection — before traveling to Uganda and the Central African Republic on a six-day trip marked by high security concerns.
Thousands of residents in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi lined the streets hours before his arrival Wednesday to see his motorcade pass, waving Kenyan flags and placards bearing messages of peace, while chanting the pope’s name and singing songs. Street vendors sold pope memorabilia such as T-shirts, portraits and DVDs.
“I’m very excited today because the Holy Father is finally coming to Kenya,” said Michael Ogutu, 23, standing on a major artery of the city hoping to catch a glimpse. “I have been praying for him … and it would be a great opportunity to see him today.”
A major focus of the pope’s visit is ethnic, tribal and religious divisions. In Kenya, he will meet with Christian, Muslim, Hindu and traditional religious leaders as well as residents of a Nairobi slum to highlight the plight of the poor. He will also meet with victims of extremist violence.
The country has been rocked in recent years by terrorist attacks carried out by Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group. In April, a massacre at Garissa University killed 148 people, and the 2013 assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi killed 67.
Survivors of the Garissa attack said gunmen targeted Christians and non-Muslims, raising tensions between the two groups. About 80% of Kenyans are Christian, with a third of its population Catholic, according to the latest government census. About 11% are Muslim.
“I hope the pope will be able to solve religion hatred among Kenyans,” said Amina Mohammed, a Muslim student at the University of Nairobi. “As Muslims, we have been victimized in schools and on the streets. When locals look at you, they say you are a member of al-Shabab simply because you are a Muslim.”
“We need people from other religions to know that (Islam) does not encourage terrorism,” she added.
Unlike in other parts of the world, Catholicism is rapidly growing in Africa. The number of Catholics on the continent has grown by 238% since 1980, according to a June report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. They accounted for about 16% of the world’s Catholics in 2012, up from about 7.5% in 1980, according to the center.
The country remains a major security risk today, and Francis’ trip there will mark the first time a pope has traveled into an active armed conflict. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi stressed that changes will be made if necessary for security reasons.
The heightened tensions and al-Shabab presence in Kenya has led to the deployment of thousands of police and soldiers throughout the capital. Nairobi Police Chief Japheth Koome said major roads will be closed as early as 4 a.m. Thursday to allow the pope to easily move around ahead of the Mass at the University of Nairobi.
Francis’ trip is the second high-profile visit by a world leader to Kenya this year after President Obama came here in July. Obama urged the government to tackle “the cancer of corruption” in the country, a message locals hope the pope echoes.
“We are tired of corrupt leaders in this country,” said Eugine Wafula, who was traveling from western Kenya to attend Thursday’s Mass. “Corruption, tribalism and nepotism are rampant in Kenya and we need spiritual healing from the pope to solve these problems.
Still, it will be Francis’ meetings with the poor where the pope — known for championing the downtrodden — will be in his element.
“We will request the pope to set up a foundation here to help orphan children,” said Jemimah Kiong’o, who lives in the Kangemi slum. “Most of the people who live here are either orphans or poor. We hope the pope will address issues affecting slum dwellers.”