ROME — Pope Francis begins his first trip to Africa Wednesday with peace and reconciliation as cornerstones of his message to a continent that faces the challenge of growing religious fundamentalism.
“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,” Francis said in a video message sent to Kenya and Uganda ahead of his visit.
The Nov. 25-30 tour will take Pope Francis to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. All three are hubs for religious intolerance, and in all three, he’s set to meet leaders of other religions or Christian denominations.
In Kenya, Francis will welcome Islam, Hindu, and Protestant leaders in the Apostolic Nunciature, the home of the papal ambassador where he’ll be staying while in the country.
Two days later, he’ll honor Uganda’s 23 Anglican martyrs, who died alongside 22 Catholic martyrs between 1885 and 1887. Although stories surrounding their deaths vary, tradition holds they were killed to fend off the advance of Christianity in what was then the kingdom of Buganda.
On Monday, the last day of his trip, Francis will visit the Koudoukou mosque in the Central African Republic to meet with the local Muslim community. It’s considered the most dangerous moment of his 27-hour visit to the war-torn nation, as the mosque is located in a neighborhood currently under control of jihadist forces.
Across Africa, the pope’s insistence on religious tolerance has clear relevance.
In Nigeria, the radical Islamic group Boko Haram mounted 453 attacks in 2014, killing 6,644 people. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the organization, whose name means “Western education is forbidden,” is the deadliest terrorist group in the world.
The average of 18 men, women, and children killed per day by Boko Haram puts the death toll in the country ahead of war zones such as Iraq or Syria, and the threat is hardly receding. On Saturday, four Boko Haram suicide bombers killed at least six in Cameroon.
Last April, gunmen from the Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab attacked Kenya’s Garissa University College, killing 147 Christian students. With a presence in other African countries such as Uganda, Djibouti, and the self-declared republic of Somaliland, this terrorist group allied with al Qaeda has killed thousands since 2003.
Kenya is a nation of 45 million that’s 80 percent Christian, but the eastern zone bordering Somalia is almost entirely Muslim. According to Bishop Anthony Muheria of Kitui, the challenges of leading a small Christian flock in such an environment are staggering.
“We’re seeing an alarming rise in Islamism,” said Muheria. “We are under threat as Christians, and our institutions are not defending us.”
Not all of Africa’s religious extremism, however, is related to Islam.
The Lord’s Resistance Army is a heterodox Christian cult that operates in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and has been included in the United States’ Terrorist Exclusion List since 2001.
Although it’s less powerful today, in 2011 it caused enough havoc to lead President Barack Obama to order the deployment of 100 US military advisers to train local forces at a cost of $4.5 million a month.
The cult has been accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, and child-sex slavery, in the name of imposing a state ruled by the Ten Commandments.
The Central African Republic showcases another form of Christian extremism. As a result of a two-year conflict between a Muslim Seleka rebel coalition and mostly Christian militia known as anti-Balaka, some 5,000 people have been killed. Just last week, 22 more people died in gunfights in rural villages.
According to the Rev. Hervé Hubert Koyassambia-Kozondo, the country’s biggest challenge is pacification, something that will happen only with disarmament.
“There are many people who have weapons and bad intentions,” he told Crux after a meeting with reporters in Rome. “The first thing we need to do to achieve peace is giving up our guns.”
He said international intervention is urgent “because the country doesn’t have the means” to achieve disarmament. National security forces are practically non-existent, making the Central African Republic dependent on 900 French troops and 10,806 uniformed personnel under the aegis of the United Nations.
While the roots of conflict in African nations may have as much to do with politics and economics as religion, many observers nevertheless believe religions can be part of the solution.
“If the faith community doesn’t engage, where else will the country turn?” said J. Mark Brinkmoeller, director of USAID’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, speaking to journalists in Rome last Friday.
Above all, Brinkmoeller praised the work being done by Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council, and Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference.
Known as the “three saints of Bangui,” Brinkmoeller defined their working together to broker peace as “an unparalleled symbolism” and as “a sign of hope.”
Joseph Murango, a Rwandan aid worker for Catholic Relief Service who’s been organizing dialogue workshops in the Central African Republic for almost two years, said expectations for Pope Francis’ visit are high.
“Members of the anti-Balaka told me they hoped Pope Francis could do something,” Murango told Crux. “We hope [he] can produce change.”
In a video message he sent to the Central African Republic ahead of his visit, Francis said he hopes his visit contributes “to relieve the wounds and to promote conditions for a more peaceful future.”
“I would like to support inter-religious dialogue to encourage peaceful coexistence in your country,” he said in French. “I know this is possible, because we’re all brothers.”