KAMPALA, Uganda— Pope Francis will fly Sunday to the war-torn capital of the Central African Republic, making a trip that has been in doubt for security reasons until practically the last minute, the Vatican spokesman said Saturday evening.
“We will the take the plane and fly to Bangui” according to schedule, Father Federico Lombardi said.
The confirmation came at the end of a day in which the pope honored Christian martyrs in Uganda, met with young people there and greeted local clergy.
The Central African Republic has been beset since 2013 by civil war that has taken on a religious profile, with armed groups divided between Muslims and Christians. Bangui’s Muslim quarter has been especially hard hit, under siege from Christian militias and effectively off-limits to non-Muslims since September.
The pope plans to visit a mosque in the Muslim neighborhood as part of his effort to promote reconciliation, which will also include a meeting with local Christian and Muslim dialogue partners.
“I want to go to Central Africa,” the pope told the pilot of his flight to Africa last Wednesday, according to the Vatican newspaper, “and if you’re not able to take me, give me a parachute.”
Barring “extraordinary surprises,” the pope’s schedule remains unchanged, including an outdoor Mass on Monday, Father Lombardi said.
Pope Francis’ stay in the country, scheduled to last little more than 24 hours, will be one of the rare cases of a pope traveling to a war zone. Pope John Paul II traveled to Nicaragua in 1983, when Sandinista government forces were battling Contra rebels there. In 1994, John Paul called off a visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia, because of fighting there; he finally made the trip in 1997.
Pope Francis’ trip to the Central African Republic is the last leg of a three-country African tour, the pope’s first visit to the continent, which started Wednesday in Kenya and took in Uganda.
The Vatican sent the head of papal security on a special reconnaissance mission just before the pope traveled to Africa. Father Lombardi said the official, Domenico Giani, had been in touch with the various forces keeping order in Bangui, but the spokesman declined to comment further on security issues.
France has about 900 troops in Bangui but says primary responsibility for security there lies with a multinational force of U.N. peacekeepers. That force has reportedly been expanded in recent days to as many as 4,000.
Father Lombardi spoke to journalists after a full day of papal events in the capital of Uganda. The day started when Pope Francis honored a group of Catholic and Anglican martyrs who were burned alive after refusing to renounce their faith in the late 19th century. Earlier in the day, the fourth in a six-day trip, he visited sanctuaries honoring the Catholic and Anglican martyrs in the city of Namugongo and celebrated Mass to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their canonization.
The martyrs’ stories show that “fidelity to God, honesty and integrity of life, and genuine concern for the good of others bring us that peace that the world cannot give,” the pope said.
The excitement over the pope’s visit was visible all over the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Billboards welcoming him were put up, and local businesses ranging from gas stations to shopping malls greeted him with banners.
For some people, the pope’s visit to Uganda was particularly well-timed, with campaigning under way for national elections in February.
President Yoweri Museveni is running for a fifth term after 30 years in power and is widely expected to win, but the threat of violence and vote-rigging is a significant concern. Human Rights Watch said in a report in October that police had used tear gas, rubber bullets and beatings to obstruct political meetings and rallies.
“There has been lots of political intimidation. I hope by the pope coming, he really can create a peaceful environment for the elections,” said Walter Amoci, a 23-year-old university student.
Moses Ruhakana, a physician, said he hopes the pope’s political clout can help bring calm to Uganda.
“One word from a pope, every human being listens,” Mr. Ruhakana said. “When he talks, the people, the president, all of them listen.”
Thousands of people attended Mass on Saturday, some arriving well before dawn. Judy Akelo, a 40-year-old vendor of books in a local market, said her three children—ages 5, 7 and 8—begged her to take them to the Mass.
“To see ‘Papa’ is not easy. They said they wanted so much to see the pope. Not just on TV, but here,” she said.
In his homily, the pope called for a “more just society, with no one excluded” – words that Father Lombardi said should be interpreted to refer also to homosexuals. Gay-rights activists have called on Pope Francis to denounce harsh antigay laws in several African countries, including Uganda. The Vatican spokesman said the pope planned no specific gesture of outreach toward gays during his Africa visit.
In Kampala, the pope met a group of young people including refugees, orphans and people suffering from disabilities at an airstrip.
One young man, Emmanuel Odokonyero, told a story of being kidnapped from a seminary in 2003 by Joseph Kony’s rebel group along with 40 other students. He escaped, but many didn’t.
Mr. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army started in Uganda in the 1980s and was known for kidnapping children to turn them into soldiers. Though the group isn’t the force it once was, it is still active in central Africa, and Mr. Kony has evaded U.S.-backed efforts to track him down.
Another speaker, Winnie Nansumba, told of her experience growing up with HIV after being born with it. About 7.3% of Ugandans ages 15 to 49 are HIV-positive, according to the United Nations’ AIDS program. Across sub-Saharan Africa, nearly one in every 20 adults is living with HIV, according to the organization.
“Young people living with HIV need care, love and support instead of sympathy, pity and rejection,” Ms. Nansumba said.
The pope said he was moved by the young people’s speeches.
“There is always the possibility of opening a new horizon and a path to the future,” he said. “This is not magic. This is the work of Jesus.”
Later in the afternoon, the pope visited a home for the poor and disabled run by an order of Catholic nuns, which he held up as an example of charitable service needed across Africa.
In his last public event of the day, the pope addressed an audience of priests, nuns and seminarians in Kampala’s cathedral.
Invoking the Uganda martyrs, Pope Francis told the congregation that the country’s soil “must continued to be watered by martyrs’ blood, so that there will be new witnesses and messengers of Christ. Otherwise, you will lose the great richness you have.”
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