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Pope in Africa: To boldly go where no pope has gone

03 December 2015 | by Christopher Lamb

Pope Francis went as a ‘pilgrim of peace’ to countries beset by poverty, war and interfaith strife. But his chief focus was on corrupt politicians and divisive churchmen

Stanislas redepouzou, 28, lost his right leg in a grenade blast in the city of Bangui on Christmas Day 2013. The attack, perpetrated by the Muslim Seleka rebels, also killed his mother and father. During a Mass in the football stadium in the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) on Monday, during his six-day tour of Africa, Pope Francis stopped his popemobile to greet and bless Stanislas, who was in a wheelchair decorated with flags. “I’m ready to forgive those who harmed me,” the young man said afterwards.

It is, perhaps, a story that demonstrates the wider narrative of peace and reconciliation that underlined Francis’ visit to the conflict- ridden CAR, along with Kenya and Uganda, during his first-ever trip to Africa.

By going to CAR at all, the Pope became the first pontiff in living memory to enter a war zone. He put his personal safety at risk and ignored the warnings of the French government that it could not guarantee his safety in a former colony where it still maintains troops. “The only thing I am worried about are the mosquitos,” the Pope joked with journalists on the papal plane. He reportedly told his pilot: “I want to go to Central Africa, and if you can’t manage it, give me a parachute.”

Francis came to the country, as he explained to the interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, as a “pilgrim of peace” and an “apostle of hope”. In some respects, his visit was in keeping with his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, who during the Fifth Crusade crossed enemy lines to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt to plead for peace – the sultan was the nephew of the Muslim warrior, Saladin.

As it was at that time, relations with Islam were one of the key concerns of the visit, given that CAR has been torn apart by violence between Muslim and Christian militias, and Kenya has suffered a series of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists.

In Nairobi, the Pope said that dialogue with other faiths is not an “optional extra” any more and that terrorism is fuelled by the despair of poverty and frustration. During his time on the continent, he sought to distinguish religion from violence and fundamentalism. This was particularly pertinent in CAR, where most experts believe the unrest has been caused by disputes over natural resources – including oil and diamonds – and the lack of a functioning state.

At the end of 2012 the country was plunged into civil war following the overthrow of François Bozizé’s government by Muslim Seleka rebels. A violent backlash by the anti-Balaka Christian forces followed, with the Muslim population of Bangui bearing the brunt of the vengeance. Many fled across the border to Chad or are among the hundreds of thousands who have become refugees in their own country. One of the biggest camps is by the airport tarmac, where the Pope’s plane touched down on Sunday, and Francis visited two others during his visit, including one surrounding the Koudougou mosque in central Bangui.

While at the mosque, where he prayed with the imam – who he then asked to ride with him on the popemobile – Francis said the conflict in CAR was not grounded in religious motives. On the plane, he said fundamentalism was a disease that affected all religions, including Catholicism. “Think of all the wars we Christians have waged. It wasn’t the Muslims who were responsible for the Sack of Rome,” he said. The entire trip was in keeping with the Pope’s desire to minister at the margins, and he chose to visit one of the poorest parts of the world at a critical moment to deliver a message. At the UN office in Nairobi he warned that it will be a catastrophe if world leaders gathered for the Paris summit on climate change this week do not face up to the problem.

 


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The next day he visited a slum in Kangemi, on the outskirts of Nairobi, to talk about the wisdom of poor communities that live with solidarity and inclusion, and show that human beings are more important than “the god of money”. These values, he added, are not “quoted on the stock exchange” but can teach wealthier societies where so many people are unfairly excluded.

For Francis, the protection of the planet is linked to building a fairer social order, and this is borne out in Africa, where disputes over its rich natural resources lead to violence and poverty. Speaking on the papal plane during the journey back to Rome, he described the continent as a “martyr to exploitation” whose riches have been plundered by those who have not helped the countries to grow.

If his message on climate change and poverty was directed at the world, then Francis’ launching of the jubilee Year of Mercy in a war zone was one to the wider Church.

Before any holy door had opened in the Vatican, he went to the dusty streets of Bangui, the scene of so much violence and suffering, to open the door of the city’s cathedral. It is clear that he would like to see the forthcoming year put mercy and reconciliation into practice. During the Mass that followed, the Pope called on people to forgive their enemies and lay down their weapons – a message he reiterated in a speech to the country’s youth on the cathedral’s steps afterwards.

One area where the Pope remained silent during his African trip was on the question of gays. In Uganda, he was visiting a country where the practice of homosexuality can lead to life imprisonment; in Kenya, same-sex acts are punishable with up to 14 years in prison.

But Francis decided not to wade into that maelstrom, and to focus instead on poverty and peace. In doing so he may have disappointed gay Catholics who were encouraged by his “Who am I to judge” remark in 2013 and when he cited the catechism as saying that homosexuals should not be “marginalised”. Were the anti-gay laws of the countries he visited not an example of the latter? Certainly gay matters have a particular relevance in the context of the history of Catholicism in Uganda, where 23 male Catholic martyrs were killed on the orders of King Mwanga II for refusing his sexual advances (there are 22 Anglicans as well, and the Pope visited their shrine too).

Where the Pope was less reticent was on the question of corruption, a serious problem in all of the countries he visited. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 30 years and is standing for election again next February; in 2005 he passed a law doing away with fixed presidential terms. During his visit, Francis urged that the country’s martyrs should inspire more transparent governance, and in Kenya he pressed young people not to develop a taste for the “sugar” of corruption. 

If cheering crowds are anything to go by, Francis’ visit was undoubtedly a success. Throughout it, he was greeted with cheering crowds and a colourful array of traditional African dancing and singing. On the flight home, he said Africa had been a surprise to him and he was impressed by the people’s ability to “party on an empty stomach”, a remark that seemed understandable coming from an Argentinian but not something one could imagine his German or Polish predecessors saying.

Comboni Missionary Fr Giulio Albanese, an expert on Central Africa who directs a news agency for missionaries and has worked in Uganda, travelled with the Pope during the visit. His experience of Africa includes being threatened with death by government soldiers when trying to mediate during the country’s civil war in 2002. The priest was spared after being recognised by one of the officers who had been his altar boy in Kampala in 1982.

“There were two objectives to the visit,” he told me on the flight back to Rome. “At the moment no one cares about the Central African Republic, even our politicians don’t know where Bangui is on a map. Pope Francis has given voice to the voiceless. Second, he has showed himself as the only world leader who is really trying to deal with people’s problems at a global level.” The visit, he thought,  would have been “unforgettable” to many in Africa; they would have asked why the Pope had decided to come to them, particularly in CAR. “I would call this visit,” he added, “the world turned upside down.”



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