Rome (Wednesday, November 25, 2015, Gaudium Press) Pope Francis leaves today for his first ever trip to Africa amid widespread security concerns not only in the war-torn Central African Republic but also in Kenya.
Both diplomatic and curial sources say that the East African nation poses arguably greater threats to security due to the concentration of Islamists in the region, its porous border with Somalia, and that, compared with CAR, it has fewer security forces.
Nairobi will be the Pope’s first stop on the 5-day tour, followed by Uganda and the Central African Republic.
Northern Kenya has been particularly hard hit by terrorism carried out by Al-Shabab militants from Somalia, as well as Islamists radicalized within Kenya itself.
The April attack on Garissa University in the region was one of the worst atrocities, but there have been many others, often underreported. Nairobi was targeted in 2013 when Al-Shabab gunmen attacked a shopping mall in the city.
“Al-Shabab operates much in the background,” Bishop James Maria Wainaina Kungu, Bishop of Muranga in central Kenya, told reporters in Rome last month. “It serves the interests of those wishing to expand Islam,” he said, and is trying to ensure the region is “abandoned and left just for Muslims.”
Meanwhile, despite warnings to the Vatican from French security forces, the Pope looks set to travel to CAR’s capital Bangui on Sunday. A civil war has been taking place there since 2013 between Muslim “Séléka” rebels and government forces.
France’s military, which is assisting in an African-led peacekeeping mission in the country, said earlier this month that it cannot guarantee the Pope’s safety during the visit. They have repeated the warning this week, saying the trip is not only life threatening for the Pope, but also for the thousands of faithful who will attend events, and that the risk has intensified since the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.
Vatican sources say the Pope could still call off the CAR leg “in the face of overwhelming security advice” but such a decision “would be made by Pope alone”. Officials say it is difficult to drop one part of a three leg tour, and that is one factor among others compounding against cancelling the visit.
At a press briefing Nov. 19, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope “is proceeding with plans to visit the Central African Republic and the Holy See is working towards that,” but he stressed that, “as any prudent person would do, we continue to monitor the situation.”
Asked how the visit to Bangui’s Central Mosque, which is said to be a very dangerous part of the Pope’s itinerary, would be handled, Father Lombardi said he was not a security expert. “I don’t have a crystal ball to foresee what can or cannot happen. I am not a local security expert to give you a detailed security brief,” he said.
In a video message yesterday to the people of Kenya and Uganda, the Holy Father said he was coming “as a minister of the Gospel, to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ and his message of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace.”
In his message to the Central African Republic, he said the objective of his visit was “first and foremost, to bring you, in the name of Jesus, the comfort of consolation and hope.” He said he hoped with all his heart that his visit “may contribute, in one way or another, to healing your wounds, and opening the way to a brighter future for Central Africa and all her inhabitants”.
The Pope will open the Jubilee Year of Mercy while there which he said he hoped would “offer a providential opportunity for authentic forgiveness, for giving and receiving, and for rebirth in love”.
“I come to you as a messenger of peace”, he concluded. “I wish to support interreligious dialogue to foster peaceful coexistence in your country; I know this is possible, as we are all brothers”.
Source NCR/ Edward Pentin