NAIROBI, Kenya | When Pope Francis begins his first journey to Africa as pontiff Wednesday, he will face a long laundry list of requests, many of them having nominally little to do with his role as spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Peace will be among these items that locals in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic want him to address on his six-day visit. Good governance is another. Respect for human rights and a condemnation of Islamic violence is a third. And all that is in addition to just staying safe in a time of soaring tensions around the world over violent and spectacular terrorist attacks.
Excited about the visit, many here in Kenya hope it will make a lasting difference on the continent, leaving Francis with one more item on his lengthy to-do list: tamping down unrealistic expectations.
Just two months after his milestone trip to Cuba and the United States, the Argentine-born Jesuit pope is embarking on another ambitious, heavily symbolic international trip, one posing some very different challenges both for the Catholic Church and for the politics of the region. Africa is the fastest-growing region for the church, but many of Francis’ signature liberalizing initiatives have raised both hopes and concerns for the millions of believers across the continent.
“We want the pope to address corruption, religious extremism, religious tolerance and the church leadership’s behavior,” said Bashan Baraza, a teacher based in Nairobi, referring to priests committing crimes such as rape, as well as caught engaging in adultery and corruption. “Our leaders are stealing money every day and we need the pope to tell them that that’s a sin against God. The pope should also tell Muslim leaders to stop promoting terrorism in this country.”
At a time when the Vatican has already doubled the size of the pope’s security guard in Rome in the wake of terror strikes in Paris and other places, security will be a major challenge throughout the trip. Authorities plan to deploy around 10,000 police in the capitals of Kenya and Uganda during the pope’s visit, which will include giant open-air Masses, the Agence France-Presse news service reported.
But authorities remain on edge, seeking to protect the pope on a continent where Muslim and Christian communities have clashed violently over the years. An Islamic State video in the wake of the Paris attacks singled out “Rome” as one of its next targets for jihadist violence.
Vatican officials insist Francis will not mute his message calling for better relations between Christians and Muslims during the trip, and for now still plans a visit to a refugee camp and a mosque in the Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui on his final day in a sector of the city, with the mosque located in a district considered a no-go zone for the country’s Catholics.
One strong motivation for Francis to make the trip is that the African church is an increasingly large share of the pontiff’s overall flock.
The proportion of African Catholics in the world population of Catholics increased from 7 percent to 16 percent between 1980 and 2012, the Associated Press reported, citing a report this year by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The number of African Catholics is projected to jump to 460.4 million in 2040.
In 2012, some 18.6 percent of people in Africa were Catholic, the report said. In 2010, about 63 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa were Christian, according to a Pew Research Center study.
The pope’s visit is the second major one this year by a pivotal figure to Kenyans: President Obama, whose father was a local and who is considered a native son here, made his first visit as president to his native land this summer.
And as with Mr. Obama’s stay, preparations for the visit has been underway for months. About 20,000 police officers have been deployed to guard the pope and his delegation. Roads have been closed off and venues secured.
Rt. Reverend Bishop Alfred Rotich, the chairman of the secretariat handling the pope’s visit, said that 1.4 million are expected to attend the papal High Mass in Nairobi. According to a poll Monday by Infotrak, a research and consulting firm based in Kenya, 93 percent of Kenyans expressed excitement about the visit, cutting across religious denominations, regions, age and gender.
Kenya’s population of 40 million is about 80 percent Christian, with an estimated one-third Catholic, according to government figures. About 11 percent are Muslim. And the majority of Kenyans are divided along seven major ethnic groups, and a number of minor ones.
The religious and ethnic diversity has created tensions over the past decade. In 2007, hundreds of people were killed in post-election violence that broke out between different ethnic groups.
And more recently, Kenya has come under violent terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia which operates primarily out of the country’s southern and central regions. That includes an attack in April on Garissa University that killed almost 150 people, mostly Christian students.
Residents across the country expressed hope that the papal visit would bring Kenyans together despite their differences.
“In Kenya, we are always divided on ethnic grounds,”said Susan Wanjiru, a mother of four who owns a shop in Kangemi slum where the 78-year-old pope is expected to meet with slum dwellers. “We need all of us to unite as Kenyans to develop this beautiful country. The pope should tell our leaders to stop dividing Kenyan on tribal and religion lines.”
“We expect the pope to confront and encourage Kenyans to face and resolve these issues,” she added.
Focus on youth
Pope Francis is expected to meet Kenyan youth on this trip also. Unemployment for youth tops 26 percent in a country where 80 percent of Kenyans are under the age of 35 years, according to the United Nations.
As a result, the government worries over this group’s vulnerability to recruitment by terrorists.
“I hope Pope Francis will take this opportunity to remind the youth of Kenya of their role in this country,” said Dancan Oloo, a local priest in the capital, Nairobi. “They should not be misled by being told that killing your fellow men or becoming suicide bombers will take them to paradise.”
Environmental issues is another item on the local wish list. Francis, an outspoken advocate for international action on climate change, is expected to speak out on poaching and ivory trafficking, a practice that is decimating the rhino and elephant population of Kenya’s famous safari parks and wilderness preserves.
Two thorny issues for Kenyans are gay rights and priest celibacy. Kenyans are staunchly against expanded rights for homosexuals, an issue that came up during President Obama’s visit this summer. Mr. Obama has expressed support for gay marriage.
But Mr. Oloo said Francis is known for inclusiveness and tolerance, and would not discriminate against Kenyan gays, unlike the general population.
“He is a man of God and he will embrace everybody,” he said.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu ruled out a meeting between married Catholic priests with the pope. Some Catholics in Kenya say priests should be allowed to marry because matrimony and the siring of children is an important part of Kenyan culture – also for clergy.
“Those who have left celibacy will not be allowed to meet Francis,” he said.
The biggest public event of the pope’s trip may come in Uganda, where more than 2 million people are expected to converge near a minor basilica in the Ugandan capital where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass on Saturday, the AP reported. Workers were feverishly putting the finishing touches on a reconstruction job at the basilica as late at this week.
The tension between openness and security may be greatest in civil war-torn Central African Republic, with some officials privately advising the Vatican to cancel the final leg of the trip.
But the Rev. Federico Lombardi said last week Francis would mingle with the crowds and travel in an open car in all three stops, and would not wear a bullet-proof vest.
“I have not heard that and I don’t believe it,” Rev. Lombardi told reporters in Rome, according to the Wall Street Journal.
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.