By Daniel Okoth
In less than two weeks, Pope Francis will kick off his maiden tour of the African continent when his plane lands at Jommo Kenyatta International Airport on 27th November.
This visit is not only significant to the 12 million Kenyan Catholics but to the entire population of Kenya (The Pope will also be visiting Uganda and the Central African Republic).
The Pope’s visit comes at a time when the country is suffering economic turmoil brought about by the near collapse of the tourism industry following increased travel advisory by key tourist source markets as a result of the ever present Al-Shabaab terror threats.
A visit by the leader of the world’s largest Christian Church coming hot on the heels of another visit by “The leader of the free world” is nothing short of a stamp of approval that “It is safe to visit Kenya.”
The high profile visits which culminate with that of British Prime Minister David Cameron early 2016 will go a long way in returning confidence among tourists. Frequent terror attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and most recently Garissa University where 147 people lost their lives significantly drove down Kenya’s earnings from the sector which was for a long time the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner.
It is my hope that the Pope will use this visit to remind the world that terror is a problem in Africa just like it is in the Western world where hundreds of lives have also been lost.
France, one of the world’s top tourist destinations has been a victim not once, but several times with the last being this weekend where 128 people were killed in six different locations in Paris.
Throughout his visits outside Vatican, his message has always been consistent – mankind’s duty to help the poor and less privileged. This is a message he needs to remind the West of, that it does more harm issuing travel restrictions to victims of terror like Kenya while not doing the same when Western Nations face equal or even worse terror threats.
This visit comes at a time when religious tensions between Christians and Muslims are at an all-time high following increase in terrorism activities. Unlike his predecessors, the Pope is known for pushing a conciliatory agenda and visiting a region with a significant population of Muslims should provide him with an opportunity to reach out to Muslims and set the stone rolling for a process of inter-religious unity in the fight against extremism.
This approach will go a long way in defeating the Al-Shabaab propaganda that has been aimed at creating tension between Christian and Muslims. This I hope will be a key message during his public mass to be held at The University of Nairobi.
Religious unity though is the least of Kenya’s problems, this country is now far more divided along ethnic lines than it were in 2007 when hundreds died as a result of post-election violence. Today “leaders” have perfected the art of spreading hate messages at public gatherings – even doing so in the name of God.
Social media has been used to divide this country along two major ethnic/political blocks. The prosecutions going on at the ICC and the arrest and prosecution of hate-mongers locally has done little to deter people from engaging in spreading hate messages.
Across our borders, ethnic cleansing is rife in Burundi even as the world turns a blind eye the same way it did two decades ago. It is my hope that “the people’s Pope” will use this visit to call on world leaders to stop the violence before it grows out of proportion.
The biggest problem facing the world today is tolerance to divergent opinion which has given rise to religious extremism, ethnicity and human right abuses.
Even though the Catholic Church does not accept homosexuality in its doctrines, Pope Francis has widely been seen to be accommodative to the LGBT community compared to his predecessors – this has even ruffled some feathers in the Church.
“If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” – Pope Francis.
While we do not expect him to push for the legalization of homosexuality, Pope Francis will almost definitely encourage African governments to deal with homosexuals in more a humane manner. The Pope is on the record acknowledging that criminalizing homosexuality is extreme.
I am however disappointed that the Pope will not be visiting West African countries that have fought and defeated Ebola. This was a good time to show solidarity with that part of the continent and appreciate the men and women who volunteered – risking their own lives to save others.
Africa needed him to show compassion with the victims we lost to Ebola, their families and those who got infected but fought and defeated the deadly disease. I hope it’s not too late to change his schedule.