Nairobi: Huge crowds braved heavy rains they hailed as “God’s blessing” on Thursday to take part in Pope Francis’ first open-air mass in Africa, singing and dancing in the centre of the Kenyan capital.
The mass in the University of Nairobi, which is also being shown live on giant television screens in neighbouring parks, is the 78-year-old’s first major appearance in public and a highly-anticipated part of his three-day visit to Kenya.
Over 100,000 people — including some 60 cardinals, archbishops and bishops from across east Africa, and 9,000 priests — crammed into the park, smiling despite the rain, which is often a symbol of blessing in the Bible and which many said was a gift from God.
“It’s important for me to be here because I want to see the Pope and hear his message,” said engineering student Stephen Kola, a Catholic volunteer who was helping out and said he wanted to hear the pontiff’s words on “peace, forgiveness, love and unity.”
Kenya’s main newspapers quickly picked up on his choice of vehicle to travel from the airport: a simple grey saloon car.
“Modesty at its best as pope rides in simple car,” The Standard newspaper said, noting the stark contrast that made with the government’s large luxury “fuel guzzlers.”
Thousands of police and troops have been deployed and roads closed to ensure security as the pontiff makes his first visit to Kenya on a six-day trip which will also take him to Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR).
Ahead of the mass, Francis met with religious leaders of different faiths, where he spoke out against the radicalisation of young people and the “barbarous attacks” carried out in the name of religion.
– ‘God of peace, not violence’ –
“All too often, young people are being radicalised in the name of religion to sow discord and fear, and to tear at the very fabric of our societies,” the pope said nearly two weeks after young jihadists, many of them French, killed 130 people in a series of gun and suicide attacks in Paris.
“The God whom we serve is a God of peace. His name must never be used to justify hatred and violence.”
Kenya has suffered numerous attacks since sending its army into neighbouring Somalia in 2011 after a string of kidnappings it blamed on Al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch, the Shebab.
The Islamist rebels have staged a string of attacks in Kenya, including an April massacre at Garissa university in which 148 people were killed, and a 2013 assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall that killed 67.
Francis arrived in Nairobi on Wednesday evening to joyous celebrations where he was greeted by choirs and dancers in traditional feather headdresses, bright clothes and beads.
From there he went on to Kenya’s presidential palace to deliver a more sombre message. Speaking alongside President Uhuru Kenyatta, Francis urged leaders to work with “integrity and transparency” and to battle inequality in comments alluding to the corruption and inequality that blights Kenya.
“I ask you in particular to show genuine concern for the needs of the poor, the aspirations of the young, and a just distribution of the natural and human resources with which the Creator has blessed your country,” Francis said.
– ‘A profound role to play’ –
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also warned the world was facing a “grave environmental crisis” just days before the start of COP21, a key United Nations climate summit in Paris.
Francis is expected to speak further on the environment on Thursday when he visits the Nairobi headquarters of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).
Ahead of the visit, UNEP chief Achim Steiner told AFP the pope had a “profound role to play” in efforts to tackle climate change.
“Whether you are a Catholic or not, it is the ethical, the moral dimension of acting on something that we know is a threat to future generations,” Steiner said.
Francis is the fourth pope in modern times to visit Africa, a continent which is now home to one in six of the world’s Catholics and whose importance to the Church is set to grow significantly over the coming decades.