KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) — Pope Francis wrapped up his six-day trip to Africa in the war-torn Central Africa Republic on Monday by warning that religious conflicts are spawning civil war, terrorism and suffering throughout the continent.
“Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself. God is peace, ‘salaam,’ ” the pope said, using the Arabic word for peace.
Under heavy security, the pope celebrated a mass at a stadium in Bangui and visited the Koudoukou mosque in a violence-riddled neighbourhood where Bangui’s Muslims have been unable to leave for months because armed Christian militia fighters have surrounded it.
Francis spoke about the violence between Christians and Muslims that erupted when rebels ousted the Central African Republic’s president three years ago — and continues to divide the country. Around 6,000 have died in the fighting, and thousands have been displaced.
Despite the security risks, the pope travelled in an open-air vehicle and received an exuberant welcome. “I want to thank him because he has preached peace,” said Nasra Yamashia, a mother of five who lives in the St. Joseph Mukasa refugee camp outside Bangui.
A Muslim, Yamishia lost her husband to Christian so-called Anti-balaka fighters who emerged after Islamic forces ousted the Central African Republic’s president.
“We have live in fear for many years, and I hope his visit will bring a lasting peace to our people. The fighters should also value the life of people and stop killings,” she said.
Francis’ remarks dovetailed with themes he sounded at the outset of his trip in Kenya last week.
“Tribalism. It can destroy. It can mean having your hands hidden behind your back and having a stone in each hand to throw to others,” the pope told a group of Catholic youths in Nairobi on Friday. ”Kenya is a young and vibrant nation. Cohesion, integration, and tolerance towards other people must be a primary goal.”
Love, he preached, was the antidote to the hatreds that tribalism and sectarianism can unleash.
“You can ask yourself: Is this path to destruction or is it an opportunity to overcome this challenge for me, my family and as a member of this country,” asked Pope Francis. “We don’t live in heaven, we live on earth and earth is full of difficulties. You have the capacity to choose which path you want to follow, the path of opportunity or of division.”
He also called for governments to distribute wealth in a socially responsible manner that curbs, rather than exacerbates, divisions between people.
“I encourage you to work with integrity and transparency for the common good, and to foster a spirit of solidarity at every level of society,” he said, speaking in the elegant surroundings of the State House, the Kenyan president’s official residence.
Kenyans embraced the pope’s message.
“I’m encouraged and inspired,” said Erick Otieno, who stood along a route where the pope passed. “He addressed issues affecting this country, and we hope our leaders will follow his advice because he’s a man of God.”
Risper Anyango, 40, a mother of three who sells roasted maize in Nairobi’s sprawling Kangemi slum, where the pope toured on his final day in Kenya, was awestruck by the pontiff’s presence.
“I have lived here in poverty for more than 20 years,” said Anyango. “The Kenya government is not willing to help the poor because of rampant corruption. I pray that our leaders hear the message of the pope.”
They noted, however, that President Obama brought a similar message to Kenya when he came to the country earlier this year.
“The problem with our leaders is that they don’t hear such messages,” said Kangemi resident Teddy Mbuvi, who works as a driver. “When Obama came, he spoke about corruption but nobody listened.”
He hoped Kenyan leaders would heed the words of the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“We know you are corrupt — you employ people from your communities,” said Mbuvi, referring to Kenyan leaders doling out patronage jobs to their ethnic groups and political allies. “But please just reduce the rate of evil you commit after listening to the pope’s message.”
In Uganda, the second African country he visited, the pope toured a shrine on Saturday that memorializes the 19th-century Christian martyrs who were burned alive for their faith.
The martyrs were fearless in bringing Christ to others, even at the cost of their own lives, said Francis.
“My visit to your country is first to commemorate the canonization of Uganda’s martyrs,” he told thousands who joined him at the shrine. “The Christian community in Uganda grew strong through the martyrs.”
Catholics in Uganda now comprise around 40 per cent of the population.
The pope’s trip, his first to Africa as pontiff, underscores the importance of the continent to the church. Africa has the fastest-growing population of Catholics – and Muslims – in the world, according to Pew Research Center, with both Islam and Christianity expected to have more than twice as many adherents in the region by 2050 as they did in 2010.
Some said the visit was also a boost to the region.
“The pope’s visit was significant to Africa, especially to our leaders and the church,” said Zacharia Wanakacha Samita, a professor at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.
“It’s time we need to come together and reflect on the things that affect us Africans,” he added. “We have just realized that we have the capacity to deal with our own issues like corruption, terrorism and tribalism. Religion has power to unite Africans ... What our leaders can do to honour the pope’s visit is to deal with these issues.”
Still, some said they expected more from the pontiff’s visit. Hundreds of Ugandans signed a petition asking for Pope Francis to allow priests to marry. They also wanted the Francis to be more critical of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has been criticized as seeking to rule the country like a dictator rather than an elected head of state.
“He gave us the message of hope and addressed the plight of the poor people,” said Rejina Naruvega, an activist based in Kampala. “But we expected Pope Francis to address the issue of celibacy and human rights for once. We wanted him to allow priests to go ahead and marry and also advise the president to stop torture and killings of political rivals.”