Pope Francis begins today a five-day, three-nation trip to east and central Africa, the first time a pope has set foot in an active war zone.

Francis’ journey (full itinerary here) will cover the three countries of Kenya, Uganda and — assuming it is safe to do so — the Central African Republic (CAR), which is currently suffering ongoing conflict between rival militant groups.

“Your dear country has for too long been affected by a violent situation and by insecurity of which many of you have been innocent victims,” the Pope said in a video message to the people of CAR, recorded in French. “The goal of my visit is, above all, to bring you, in the name of Christ, the comfort of consolation and hope,” he said, adding: “I hope with all my heart that my visit may contribute, in one way or another, to alleviate your wounds and to favor conditions for a better, more serene future for Central Africa and all its inhabitants.”

In fact, all three countries have suffered enormously from conflict and religious divisions. The pope comes, said the Vatican spokesman last week, as “a messenger of peace and reconciliation”. His aim is to counter religious conflict with a message of mercy, showing the Pope’s closeness to the victims of violence and giving a powerful message of inter-religious understanding based on a common commitment to peace.

This is the Pope’s first trip to Africa but all three countries have been visited by popes before — the first was Uganda, by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1969. Francis will set foot in Kenya first, on Wednesday and Thursday, before moving on to Uganda on Friday and Saturday. His last stop will be the CAR, on Sunday and Monday.

Africa is the fastest growing region for Catholicism anywhere in the world: During the 20thcentury, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa went from 1.9m to more than 130m — a staggering expansion rate of over 6,000 per cent. Already Africans account for a fifth of the world’s Catholics, and that percentage is increasing rapidly: there are expected to be 460m Catholics by 2040.

At the same time, religious divides in the continent are linked to war, violence and poverty. Kenya and the CAR have hit international news with increased frequency, problematizing this image of the growing importance of religion for people’s lives.

Highlights of the trip

The Pope’s press secretary, Fr Federico  Lombardi, has drawn attention to a number of key moments in the trip:

In Kenya: the Pope’s address on Laudato Si’ to the United Nations Environment Programme, which has its headquarters in the capital, Nairobi.  Also his visit to Nairobi’s Kangemi neighborhood, where he will give a speech similar to those he gave to the world meeting popular movements first in the Vatican in 2014 and then in July in Santa Cruz in Bolivia (see CV Comment here).

In Uganda: the Mass for the Martyrs of Namugongo (mostly known as ‘the Ugandan martyrs’) on Saturday. (“We know how important the theme of martyrdom is to the Pope”, Fr Lombardi told journalists. “We saw this especially in Korea, and we’ll see it again in Uganda.”)

In the CAR, Pope Francis will show his concern for the people and commitment to peace by visiting a Catholic parish sheltering more than 2,000 refugees. “We know that Pope Francis’s objective in visiting the Central African Republic is to manifest his closeness to the people suffering as a result of conflict and tensions,” Fr Lombardi said, who added that the visit to the refugee camp will be the first thing he does in the country after meeting the authorities. Also significant will be the visit to Bangui’s mosque for a meeting with the country’s Muslims.

The Pope’s bold move

CAR’s most recent troubles began in late 2012 when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed the Séléka alliance. Moving south from their northern stronghold, they seized power from then-president François Bozizé in 2013. But they have since been beaten back by mostly Christian militias calling themselves the Anti-Balaka. The violence has led to some 6,000 dead and a quarter of the population — over a million people — being displaced. The former French colony is currently operated by a transitional authority in anticipation of December elections.

In an attempt to improve security for the Pope’s visit to the CAR’s capital, Bangui, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon has asked the UN Security Council to redeploy 300 additional peacekeepers from a mission in Ivory Coast, a request which Britain says the Council backs. This follows warnings from French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that it will be difficult to ensure the Pope’s safety beyond the airport.

“The pope wants to go to the Central African Republic,” said Fr Lombardi last Thursday. “The plan continues to be to go to the Central African Republic. We are all working in that direction. And, like any wise person would do, we are monitoring the situation.”

France’s 900 soldiers in the country will secure the airport and provide medical evacuation if necessary, but “cannot do more,” in the words of an official close to the French Defence Minister.

Pope Francis’s bold move is in response to a 2014 visit to the Vatican by an imam, an evangelical pastor and a Catholic archbishop. The three religious leaders from the CAR —  dubbed “the three saints of Bangui” by Le Monde — impressed on the pope that the ongoing conflict in the CAR has been wrongly portrayed as a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, and that the country is in urgent need of international support.

Time magazine named the religious leaders among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014, and the United Nations awarded them the 2015 Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize for peace. By accepting their invitation, Francis is giving the greatest possible support for one of the greatest examples of inter-religious action for peace.

In the CAR’s Cathedral Notre-Dame, Pope Francis will open the cathedral doors as a rite to begin the Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy. In the morning following the opening of the cathedral doors, the pope will visit the Central Mosque of the Bangui, which is in a particularly unstable part of the city. The theme of mercy — which is central to Islam’s understanding of Allah — is what binds these two moments.

Kenya

In Kenya, the pope will say Mass in the campus of the University of Nairobi, an institution that has been the site of political protests over the course of Kenya’s history following unlawful detentions of political dissidents. As a nationally-renowned epicentre of Kenya’s ethnic diversity, the University represents the country’s hopes and dreams.

Thursday’s Mass is expected to attract 1.4 million people, some 3 percent of the country’s population. Afterwards, the pope will speak at the United Nations headquarters in Africa on climate change. As this speech comes on the eve of the meeting of the major countries of the world in Paris, known as “COP21“, Pope Francis is likely to make a powerful call to urgent action.

Nairobi’s Kangemi slum, where Francis will give his ‘popular movements’ speech, is on the outskirts of the city and isthought to be occupied by over 100,000 people without access to clean water or a sewage system. Women from the slum’s Dolly Craft Center aresewing three vestments which the pope will choose from for the Mass, two of which have African cultural themes.

In 2010, Al-Shabaab suicide bombers in Kampala, Uganda, killed 74 people watching the World Cup final. Since then, numerous catastrophic attacks by Al-Shabaab have hit Kenya, most notably the killing of 67 people in the Westgate shopping centre (Sep 2013) and the killing of 147 students in Garissa University College (Apr 2015). At the same time, citizens of Kenya have been extremely critical of international media framing the country as overwhelmed by terrorism, with particular anger directed at CNN’s description of the country as a “hotbed of terror”.

It would be surprising if, in the wake of the Paris attacks and against this background, Pope Francis does not address the theme of jihadist violence as a betrayal of all that religion holds dear.

Uganda

To the north-east of the capital, Francis will visit Namugongo, where he will visit first the Anglican then Catholic shrines dedicated to the Ugandans martyred between 1885 and 1887. The 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics were burnt to death by the King of Buganda as part of a religious persecution, possibly because of their refusal to entertain sexual promiscuity. As a religious site of global recognition, the location is a perfect vehicle for the Pope’s message of unity through solidarity between world religions.

In his pre-visit video message to Kenya and Uganda recorded by the Pope in English, Francis said: “We are living at a time when religious believers, and persons of good will everywhere, are called to foster mutual understanding and respect, and to support each other as members of our one human family, for all of us are God’s children.”

That afternoon, Pope Francis will visit the House of Charity in Nalukolongo, where Good Samaritan sisters care for elderly residents. It is one of 288 health institutions run by the Catholic Church in Uganda.

Central African Republic

Because of fears over violence, the pope’s final stop in Bangui is likely to send the largest shockwaves. Transitional president of the CAR, Catherine Samba Panza, said she hopes Pope Francis will come despite these concerns, and the Vatican has confirmed  he will.

One of the striking stories likely to emerge over the course of these events is the backwards travelling to the CAR by hundreds of thousands of Africans from neighbouring Congo and Cameroon in order to catch a glimpse of the Pope.

Before Mass at the cathedral and symbolically opening the doors of the Church to begin the Year of Mercy, the Pope will visit a refugee camp — an opportunity to address a refugee crisis that is now global.

Dr Dominic Burbidge is Departmental Lecturer in African Studies at the University of Oxford. He has spent long periods of his career living in East Africa, and speaks Swahili. This article has been republished from Catholic Voices.

Dr Dominic Burbidge is Departmental Lecturer in African Studies at the University of Oxford. He has spent long periods of his career living in East Africa, and speaks Swahili.