NAIROBI — When Pope Francis arrives in Africa on Wednesday, it will be his first visit to a continent racked by the ills he has lamented so publicly — abject poverty, climate change, deadly fighting among members of different religious groups.
But visiting the world’s fastest-growing Catholic population — at least the way Pope Francis has planned — presents security and logistical challenges the Vatican hasn’t encountered for years, if ever. He will travel to the Central African Republic, the scene of a bitter war, where the commanders of French troops said they couldn’t protect him. In Kenya, he asked to visit a slum so remote and crime-ridden that a security team eventually overruled the idea. He’ll go to another slum instead. In Uganda, he’ll have a slightly simpler trip, including a visit to a home for the disabled, albeit in a country that has been targeted by terrorist groups in the past.
“He doesn’t know us as a people, as a church, as a continent,” said Father Stephen Okello, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa who is coordinating the visit. “And he’s coming to learn.”
The ambitious and seemingly risky five-day agenda reflects the personal style of a pope known for intrepid trips, as well as the importance he appears to be placing on his first African tour. Since 1980, the number of Catholics
in Africa has tripled to about 200 million, nearly 18 percent of the church’s followers.
The African branch of the church has emerged as a bastion of conservative theology — with African bishops frequently issuing missives that take aim at homosexuality, divorce and Western interests in Africa, including development programs. Those interests represent a “terrifying resurgence of a colonialist spirit,” said a June declaration of the bishops of Africa and Madagascar.
Although Francis is perceived by many in the United States and Europe as a liberal pope, that label isn’t completely accurate, and he’s unlikely to advocate reforms on social issues during this visit, church experts say. In Uganda, which has some of the world’s most draconian anti-gay laws, Francis isn’t seen as an enemy of conservative theology or a defender of Western values, even though he has suggested that the church needs to embrace divorced people and gays.
“If Francis was a flaming liberal, if he was trying to appoint gay bishops, it would be different. But he’s not a super-liberal,” said Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and an authority on global Christianity at Baylor University. “This is a pope who is speaking to local problems, local concerns. He’s not just some white guy who is coming to lecture them. He’s a ‘global south’ figure.”
Still, Francis is presiding over a church where tensions between European and African Catholics have been flaring. In an interview last year, German Cardinal Walter Kasper rejected the role African bishops were playing in keeping the church from making reforms on the issues of homosexuality and divorce.
“They should not tell us too much what we have to do,” Kasper said of the African bishops.
This year, at a synod on family issues, African leaders were even more vocal than they had been, and the distance between the church’s poles appeared to grow.
“What Nazi-fascism and communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today,” said Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea.
Although that tension hovers over the church’s institutional politics, it is not likely to cloud Francis’s trip to Africa, where he will be warmly received as a champion of the poor and the downtrodden.
On Friday, he will visit a sprawling slum called Kangemi on the outskirts of Nairobi that has ballooned from 40,000 people to 140,000 people in 30 years. Its residents are among the poorest in East Africa. The slum is
an agglomeration of tin-roofed shanties crammed into 45 square miles, where carjacking, theft and murder are common. Although the rough streets and electrical lines were repaired for the pope’s visit, Kangemi remains mostly untouched by public services. Where the government has failed to act, the slum’s many churches have stepped in, a common dynamic in much of Africa.
“Here we are forgotten about,” said Paschal Mwijage, the priest at Kangemi’s St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, which will host Francis. “Only when they heard the pope was coming did they even fix the streets.”
Although Pope John Paul II visited Kenya several times during his papacy, he never visited a slum — a fact that some say reflects differences in the personalities and agendas of the two men.
“This pope is a VIP who doesn’t like VIP treatment,” said Okello, who also planned John Paul II’s visits.
Kenya has been struck by several large-scale attacks by Islamist extremists in recent years, including the 2013 attack on Westgate Mall that left 67 dead, and this year’s attack on a university where 147 were killed. Francis has spoken publicly about the need for interfaith reconciliation, calling the current spate of conflicts a “piecemeal third world war,” but he has spent little time in countries hit by religious violence.
Last week’s attack in Mali exemplified the threats posed by Islamist extremists throughout the continent. It was also a reminder of the kinds of threats Francis’s entourage faces in traveling to remote locations.
“In all of our conversations about the trip, the first thing that always comes up is security,” Mwijage said.
The pope’s interfaith efforts will be tested most intensely in the Central African Republic, where he is to visit a refugee camp and a mosque. Since 2013, the Seleka, a Muslim rebel movement, and its affiliates have been fighting Christian militias called the “anti-balaka.” More than 5,000 people have been killed and about a half-million have been displaced. In the months before the pope’s visit, the conflict has devolved further, with dozens killed in a fresh round of fighting since September.
“He’s coming at one of the worst moments in the country’s history,” said LeAnn Hager, the Central African Republic country director for Catholic Relief Services, a church-affiliated U.S. humanitarian organization based in Baltimore. “That’s what makes the visit so important.”
The pope has said he will not wear a bulletproof vest during the visit, according to the Catholic Herald newspaper. But Vatican officials said that the visit could be canceled if the security situation worsens. The pope’s time in the republic also could be limited to a short stop at the airport in Bangui, the capital.
“He is willing to travel to dangerous places. What matters to him is that he gets close to the people who don’t count for much in today’s society,” said Justo Lacunza Balda, a religious scholar and member of the Society of African Missionaries, an organization of missionaries working in Africa. “In that way, he is really fearless.”