Andrew Medichini / AP Photo

Pope Francis, making first Africa visit, urges Kenyans to work for peace

Pope's six-day visit includes stops in Uganda and Central African Republic

 Pope Francis told Christian and Muslim leaders in Kenya on Thursday that they have little choice but to engage in dialogue to guard against the "barbarous" Islamic extremist attacks that have struck Kenya as he kicked off his first full day in Africa with a message of tolerance and peace.

Francis met with a small group of Kenya's faith leaders before celebrating his first public Mass in Africa, a joyful celebration attended by tens of thousands of faithful that was marked by ululating Kenyan singers and traditional dancers on the rain-soaked campus of the University of Nairobi.

Francis received a raucous welcome from the crowd as he zoomed around the grounds in his open-sided popemobile, some 10,000 police on hand for security. Some people had been there since 3 a.m., braving heavy showers.

On his first full day in Africa, Francis insisted that religion can never be used to justify violence and lamented that "all too often, young people are being radicalized in the name of religion to sow discord and fear, and to tear at the very fabric of our societies."

He said interfaith dialogue isn't a luxury or optional, but is simply "essential."

Kenya, a former British colony is majority Christian, but Muslims represent about 10 percent of the population.

In the meeting with the faith leaders, Francis referred explicitly to three recent attacks claimed by the Somalia-based Al-Shabab group, saying he knew well that the memories were still fresh in Kenya's mind.

In April, the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack on a mostly Christian college in northeastern Kenya that left some 150 people dead. A month earlier, Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for attacks in Mandera county on the Somali border in which 12 people died. In September 2013, at least 67 people were killed in an attack by Al-Shabab on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

"Here, I think of the importance of our common conviction that the God whom we seek to serve is a God of peace," Francis said. "How important it is that we be seen as prophets of peace, peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect."

His comments were echoed by Abdulghafur El-Busaidy, the head of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, an umbrella organization founded in 1973 to unify the East African nation's Islamic community.

He said Christians and Muslims must work together to accommodate one another, and lead the country. "We should not step back," he said. "We have to lead, because we are led by the word of God."

Francis was received upon arrival at Nairobi's airport by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, several religious figures and a throng of traditional dancers and singers at the start of a six-day visit that also takes him to Uganda and the Central African Republic (CAR).

In a speech delivered shortly after arriving in Kenya to Kenyatta and the country’s diplomatic corps at Nairobi’s State House, the pope urged world leaders to pursue responsible economic development and to protect nature for future generations.

He also urged Kenyans to work for peace and forgiveness in order to heal ethnic, religious and economic divisions.

"Experience shows that violence, conflict and terrorism feed on fear, mistrust and the despair born of poverty and frustration," he told the audience, which applauded him warmly. "Ultimately, the struggle against these enemies of peace must be carried on by men and women who fearlessly believe in, and bear honest witness to, the great spiritual and political values which inspired the birth of the nation."

Francis spoke generally about the threat posed by Al-Shabab and others, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which on Wednesday struck Tunisia within a fortnight of the Paris attacks.

"As we fight this war, recent events around the world have indeed taught us that we must do even more to bring unity and understanding between faiths, between ethnicities, between races but also between nations," he said. 

Francis is aiming to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to Africa, but is also stressing other issues, including the need to fight poverty, protect the environment and encourage good governance.

Francis urged Kenya's political, social and economic leaders to work with "integrity and transparency" for the common good, a clear reference to Kenya's poor record on corruption. Transparency International ranked Kenya 145 out of 174 countries in its 2014 corruption perception index, and Kenyatta this week described corruption as a national security threat to East Africa's largest economy.

"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.

Kenyatta, for his part, said corruption was the major challenge facing the country. His rule has come under criticism for a lack of high-level prosecutions of officials accused of corruption.

On the eve of Francis' arrival, he replaced six ministers who vacated office after they were accused of corruption.

"Kenya's future depends on upholding the highest standards of integrity in governance, in inclusivity and in the protection of peace," Kenyatta said.

After visiting Nairobi's Kangemi slum Friday, Francis heads to Uganda where he'll pray at the shrine to the country's famous martyrs and celebrate a Mass.

Some uncomfortable issues may arise: The church's opposition to condoms as a way to fight AIDS, and its support of local legislation criminalizing homosexuality are chief among them.

But on the whole, the pope's visit is meant to tell the African church that it matters, said the Rev. Robert Dowd, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. "It has a crucial role to play in promoting justice and peace in societies where governments are not always accountable or responsive."

During his final stop on his trip, the pope will pay a visit to CAR, which will mark the first time a pope has flown into an active armed conflict.

The pope is due to arrive Sunday in Bangui. CAR has been highly volatile since early 2013, when Muslim rebels overthrew the president. Severe episodes of violence followed and has continued to flare despite the presence of more than 11,000 peacekeepers and police.

Francis is expected to encourage an interfaith peace initiative involving the archbishop, the evangelical leader and Bangui's imam.

"Your country has known for too long a situation of violence and insecurity where many of you have become innocent victims," he said in a video message sent to CAR Catholics ahead of his trip. "My aim is to bring you comfort, consolation and hope in the name of Jesus."

Wire services 

Related News

Africa, Kenya
Pope Francis

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Africa, Kenya
Pope Francis

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter