It almost sounds like the start of a bad joke: “A pastor, an imam, and an archbishop walk into a war ….” This week, however, it isn’t the set-up to a punchline, but rather a primary explanation for why Pope Francis is determined to set foot in one of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.

Francis departs Wednesday for a five-day trip to Africa, one that’s supposed to take him to Kenya and Uganda before ending with a Nov. 29-30 stop in the Central African Republic.

One has to say “supposed to” because it’s still not certain that Francis will actually make it to the war-torn CAR. The Vatican on Thursday insisted the pope fully intends to go, but also acknowledged that it is monitoring the security situation.

Assuming Francis proceeds, the trip will mark the first time a pope has visited an active war zone. The CAR descended into violence two and a half years ago when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, backed by forces from Chad and Sudan, sparking reprisal killings by largely Christian militias.

Some 5,000 civilians have died in the conflict, and one-quarter of the population of 4.6 million has been displaced. Just last week, 22 more people were killed in gunfights in rural villages.

Against that backdrop, Francis’s visit represents one of the bolder things a pope has done in recent memory. His roll of the dice is even more dramatic given his current plan to visit a mosque in a Muslim neighborhood considered a no-go zone because it is dominated by jihadist forces.

Part of the reason for the pontiff’s resolve lies with his hosts, especially the “three saints of Bangui,” referring to the capital city.

The three are the Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council; and Archbishop Diedonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference.

They represent the main religious options in a country where 50 percent of the population is Protestant, 30 percent Catholic, and 15 percent Muslim. Remarkably, they were fast friends even before the conflict broke out, and they’ve only deepened those bonds since.

Together, they’ve traveled the country visiting areas plagued by violence, holding community meetings to rebuild trust. They promote a string of “peace schools” where children of all religions can study, as well as health care centers open to all faiths.

Last year, they toured Western capitals to plead for intervention to stop the bloodshed, meeting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York and Pope Francis in Rome. Their groundwork led to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force in September 2014.

It was the French daily Le Monde that dubbed the clerics the “three saints of Bangui.” Time magazine named them 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.

This is a real friendship, not just a string of photo-ops.

In December 2013, when Christian militias attacked the Muslim neighborhood where Layama lived, Nzapalainga invited the imam and his family to move into his personal residence at St. Paul’s Parish. They remained there for five months.

“When the life of a brother is threatened, we must provide assistance,” Nzapalainga said, adding that the experience “brought us a lot closer.”

To take another example, in August 2013 Guerekoyame-Gbangou was thrown into prison after criticizing then-President François Bozizé. In response, Nzapalainga demanded to be incarcerated along with his friend.

“I asked for a sleeping mat so I can stay with Rev. Nicolas. Whatever time it will last, three days or [several] months, I was determined to remain in prison with him,” he told World Watch Monitor.

Suitably shamed, the interior minister had Guerekoyame-Gbangou released.

The three men repeatedly have put their lives on the line. Last February, for example, they visited a Bangui church for a dialogue session. When they arrived, an outraged crowd was instead planning a lynching, after learning that an imam had been driven to the site by a former member of the Seleka.

The clerics escorted the man into the church and refused to surrender him. They were surrounded by an angry mob from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., without food or water, until peacekeepers came to their rescue.

The risks aren’t occasional, but constant.

Last month, Guerekoyame-Gbangou narrowly missed being killed when Muslim gunmen assaulted his house on the grounds of Bangui’s Elim Church. He had departed a half-hour before, but two other people had their throats slit — tragically, they were displaced residents who had been given refuge by the pastor.

Their core message is that the conflict is not religious or sectarian, but rather driven by economic and political self-interest. (Among other things, the CAR is the world’s 12th largest diamond exporter, and its open-pit mines are renowned for the quality of their gems. Control of the mines is a major objective of all sides.)

If peace comes to the Central African Republic, most observers believe the three saints of Bangui will deserve a strong share of the credit. In an era in which religion is often seen as a source of conflict, they offer a powerful counter-example that it can be every bit as much a part of the solution.

It would seem that for Pope Francis, shining a spotlight on this remarkable inter-faith friendship is worth running a few risks himself.

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Crux in Africa

Crux Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín will travel aboard the papal plane during the pontiff’s Nov. 25-30 trip to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. Watch for her reports on Crux and stay up to date by following her on Twitter at @inesanma.

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There’s a lot at stake as Francis makes his first trip to Africa

To be honest, pondering what else Pope Francis may have in the hopper for his Africa trip, beyond risking his physical safety to help bring a peaceful end to one of the world’s most vicious conflicts, seems a bit like asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

Even if all he does is step foot in the Central African Republic, it still feels a bit churlish to demand some other justification for the outing.

Yet there’s a strong case that the Nov. 25-30 visit to Africa is among the most important Francis will have made to date, even apart from his foray to a conflict zone. Three reasons explain why, pivoting on the continent he’s visiting and the two other countries on his itinerary.

Africa: In the early 21st century, Africa is arguably the most consequential corner of the global map for Catholic fortunes.

Statistically, it’s the zone of Catholicism’s greatest growth. During the 20th century, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa went from 1.9 million to more than 130 million — a staggering expansion rate of 6,708 percent.

There’s also a growing self-confidence about the Church in Africa, especially at the leadership level. A generation ago, the typical African bishop may have thought of himself as a junior partner in Catholicism Inc., but today they’re clearly determined to take a seat at the big table.

In the abstract, one might imagine that African Catholics would welcome Francis as one of their own, a fellow believer from the global South bringing the perspective of the Two-Thirds World to Rome. It’s likely his reception will be rapturous, and he’s certain to draw large and enthusiastic crowds.

In truth, however, African Catholic attitudes towards Pope Francis remain a work in progress.

For one thing, Francis has never been in Africa before, not just as pope, but in his entire life. This trip thus shapes up as a learning opportunity on both sides. It will be the first time Africans encounter Francis in the flesh, and also the first time he has the chance to develop his own personal impressions.

As part of that picture, Francis’ media profile as a somewhat liberal reformer isn’t always congenial to important currents of African Catholic opinion, which pride themselves on representing traditional devotion and morality against an ever-more secular tide in the West.

During the Synods of Bishops on the family held in October 2014 and again last month, several African bishops emerged as leaders of the conservative opposition on issues such as Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and more positive language on gay and lesbian relationships.

No African bishop would quite say so out loud, but it’s well known that many aren’t exactly enchanted with some of the new winds blowing in the Pope Francis era.

If Francis wants to lead a truly global family of faith, he obviously has to bring the Africans along. He arrives with a strong card to play on that front, which is a bit of phraseology he invokes a good deal: “Ideological colonization.”

The term refers to efforts by Western governments, foundations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to make liberalization on matters such as abortion, contraception, and gay rights a condition of development aid for poor nations. It’s been a pet peeve of African bishops for decades, and it’s also become a signature phrase for Francis.

If the pontiff uses his outing to press the case against ideological colonization, one consequence could be to assure African Catholics — perhaps especially some of the continent’s bishops — that despite his maverick image, he understands what moves them.

Kenya: A country of 45 million people, Kenya has long been considered a basic success story. It boasts the fourth-highest literacy rate in Africa and the largest economy in East Africa. Its capital, Nairobi, is considered one of the continent’s most developed cities and functions as a financial and media hub.

In Catholic terms, too, Kenya has much of which to boast. Although Catholics represent about a quarter of the population, the Church operates the country’s largest private network of schools and hospitals. Catholics are also over-represented in parliament and in professional circles.

Yet there are worrying clouds on the horizon, including growing Islamic radicalism in the eastern region of Kenya bordering Somalia, which is almost entirely Muslim. In April, Al-Shabaab gunmen stormed a university in Garissa, killing 150 people and injuring 80. Militants took their victims hostage and demanded to know whether they were Christian or Muslim, leaving the latter unharmed while killing the former.

Speaking to reporters in Rome shortly after the attack, Bishop Anthony Muheria of Kitui, a neighboring Kenyan diocese, said that his priests find themselves pondering a grim choice — whether to teach their parishioners to recite a few lines from the Qu’ran in order to pass as a Muslim should they ever find themselves in the same situation.

“We’re seeing an alarming rise in Islamism,” said Muheria. “We are under threat as Christians, and our institutions are not defending us.”

Pope Francis thus has the chance to accomplish two important things.

First, he could use the backdrop of the Garissa atrocity to once again sound an alarm on anti-Christian persecution and religious hatred generally. Second, he could embolden Kenya’s Catholics to be change agents, deepening friendships across ethnic and religious lines and building firebreaks for when crises erupt.

Uganda: Catholics represent more than 40 percent of Uganda’s population, in a country that’s 85 percent Christian. As in Kenya, English is the primary language of education, politics, and commerce, which makes Uganda an emerging English-speaking Catholic powerhouse.

By 2050, Uganda is projected to have a Catholic population of 56 million, making it the third-largest English-speaking Catholic country in the world behind only the Philippines and the United States.

The country has a proud Christian history, symbolized by the “Uganda Martyrs,” a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts executed by the traditional king in the late 19th century. Francis is scheduled to visit both Anglican and Catholic shrines commemorating their memory.

Inevitably, any time a pope travels to Africa, the question of condom use and HIV/AIDS prevention will be in the air. (The Church opposes the use of condoms and other artificial means of birth control.)

Uganda seems the most likely spot for it to come up on this trip, given that it’s not only one of the African nations hardest hit by the disease (with an estimated adult infection rate of 7 percent), but also home to the fabled “ABC” approach to fighting it — “abstinence, be faithful, and if that fails, use a condom.”

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Cameroon in 2009, on his own first outing to Africa, the trip was engulfed in controversy when he said the widespread distribution of condoms actually makes the AIDS crisis worse. Certainly reporters and anti-AIDS activists alike will be keenly interested in anything Francis may have to say on the subject.

Beyond that, Uganda is also a place where Francis has a chance to make an important contribution to ecumenism, meaning the press for Christian unity, perhaps especially vis-à-vis Pentecostals.

The global explosion in Pentecostalism arguably was the most important Christian story of the late 20th century. From less than 6 percent in the mid-1970s, Pentecostals finished the century representing almost 20 percent of world Christianity, according to a 2006 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life called “Spirit and Power“.

Uganda is among the nations on the leading edges of this explosion in Africa, with 20 percent of the country now estimated to adhere to Pentecostal Christianity, and to be honest, their relations with Catholics haven’t always been warm.

A decade ago I was in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and asked the then-secretary of the bishops’ conference how things stood with the Pentecostals. In response, he led me out of the office and down the street to a Pentecostal mega-church with a huge billboard advertising next Sunday’s sermon on “The Seven Sins of the Catholic Church.”

“There you go,” he said. “That’s pretty much the whole relationship.”

Francis arrives with strong street credibility among Pentecostals. He made an unprecedented visit to a Pentecostal church in the southern Italian city of Caserta in July 2014 to deliver an historic apology for Catholic mistreatment.

“I ask for your forgiveness for those who, calling themselves Catholic, didn’t understand we’re brothers,” he said, receiving a standing ovation.

If Francis can use his stop in Uganda to lay out a vision not only for better relations with established Christian denominations such as Anglicanism, but also with the far more diffuse and decentralized Pentecostal world, he could leave Christianity in Africa better positioned to confront its challenges.