NAIROBI — In his first full day in Africa, Pope Francis spoke to the many millions reeling from a string of terrorist attacks, condemning the way young people have been “radicalized in the name of religion to sow discord and fear.”
That message — like the rest of his comments here Thursday — spoke to both global and local concerns, shifting between lamentations for a perilous time globally in history and the threats facing Kenya as its economic and geopolitical strength grows. Francis has described the amalgam of conflicts pervading the globe as a “piecemeal” third world war, and on this trip, he has set out to examine some of the pieces.
At a meeting with religious leaders from multiple faiths, he cited the two largest terrorist attacks in Kenya’s recent history — the 2013 assault on the Westgate shopping mall, in which 67 people died, and the attack this year on Garissa University, where 147 were killed. The growth of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa has often been overshadowed by the Islamic State’s operations elsewhere, but the string of groups operating on the continent is no less deadly.
Francis recognized Kenya’s struggles against Islamist extremism, saying at a meeting of religious officials that he knew the two attacks “are fresh in your minds.”
Over the next three days, he is likely to bring the same approach to Uganda and the Central African Republic, countries plagued by their own protracted conflicts. Uganda has failed to defeat the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army, which has conducted strings of killings across much of east and central Africa. The Central African Republic (CAR) is in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 5,000 people since 2013.
The visit to CAR is particularly risky — marking the first time in recent history a pope has flown into an active armed conflict. On the plane to Kenya, according to the ANSA Italian news agency, Francis joked with the pilot:
“I want to go to CAR. If you can’t manage it, give me a parachute.” His spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, had joked last week that the pope would give a news conference at the end of the Africa trip “if all are alive.”
At Thursday’s interfaith meeting, Francis discussed the ways extremism is used “to sow discord and fear, and to tear at the very fabric of our societies.” He stressed the need for religious leaders to heal those wounds, shifting his message back to the universal.
“His holy name must never be used to justify hatred and violence,” Francis said.
After that address, Francis visited the U.N. Office at Nairobi, where he spoke about another issue with both local and global implications — environmental conservation. More specifically, he spoke about the world’s failure to conserve much at all, calling for “a new culture” that re-prioritizes sustainable development.
“Nothing will happen unless political and technical solutions are accompanied by a process of education which proposes new ways of living,” he said.
Francis has emerged as one of the world’s most prominent champions of the environment and has frequently argued that irreversible damage will be caused by climate change unless humankind changes course. In a major paper he issued earlier this year — called an encyclical — he wrote, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
During his speech at the U.N. office, which houses the headquarters of the United Nations’ environmental program, Francis appeared to add emphasis to his earlier writings on the environment ahead of the U.N. climate change conference in Paris, which begins next week.
He called the conference “an important stage in the process of developing a new energy system which depends on a minimal use of fossil fuels, aims at energy efficiency and makes use of energy sources with little or no carbon content.”
He singled out Africa as a place where there was a “cry rising up from humanity and the earth itself” in the form of ivory trafficking, the illegal trade of minerals and a range of other environmental abuses.
In between the meeting with religious leaders and the address on the environment, Francis celebrated his first Mass in Africa, an event that drew thousands from throughout East Africa to the muddy grounds of a university campus here. The audience gathered in the rain for hours, singing hymns through the early morning while waiting for the pope. The participants huddled under umbrellas, cheering and ululating at the first sight of the popemobile.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said Nganda Paul, who works at a tea factory outside Nairobi. “He is pointing out the issues we are struggling with as a nation, and we love him for that.”
Pope John Paul II was the last pope to visit Kenya, in 1995. Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, visited Africa twice, in 2009 and 2011. But the continent has changed considerably. When Francis spoke Thursday at the University of Nairobi, he was at the foot of the city’s growing skyline.
Behind a cluster of traditional dancers in bright African fabrics, many people were posting photos and comments of the pope on social-media platforms from their cellphones.
“I follow him on Twitter,” said Sophie Ndugu, a banker from nearby Machakos County. “He’s keeping up with the world.”
Just after the Mass ended, @pontifex tweeted:
“May my visit to Africa be a sign of the Church’s esteem for all religions, and strengthen our bonds of friendship.”
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.