KAMPALA: Pope Francis hailed Africa as “a continent of hope” on Friday as he toured Uganda on the second leg of a landmark trip that has seen him railing against corruption and poverty.
The 78-year-old pontiff was given a rapturous welcome as he flew in to the central town of Entebbe, heading straight to Uganda’s presidential palace in a small hatchback car as waving crowds gathered along the roadside, four deep in some places.
In his opening speech, Francis said his visit was “meant to draw attention to Africa as a whole: its promise, its hopes, its struggles and its achievements.
“The world looks to Africa as the continent of hope,” he said.
The pontiff arrived after three days in neighbouring Kenya, where vast crowds turned out for an open-air mass, and where he lashed out at corruption and wealthy minorities who hoard resources at the expense of the poor.
The pope has made humility and help for the impoverished a hallmark of his tenure.
Veteran Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, widely expected to be re-elected next year for his third decade in power, said he was honoured to host Pope Francis, describing his compassion for the poor and his frankness of spirit as “an encouragement for all of us.”
In his address, Francis hailed Uganda’s “outstanding” response in welcoming some half a million refugees and enabling them “to rebuild their lives in security and with a sense of dignity.”
“Our world, caught up in wars, violence, and various forms of injustice, is witnessing an unprecedented movement of peoples,” he said.
“How we deal with them is a test of our humanity, our respect for human dignity, and above all our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need.”
On the eve of his arrival, Ugandan MPs passed a controversial bill handing the authorities sweeping powers to supervise, approve, inspect and dissolve NGOs in a move which could see rights activists jailed for documenting abuses.
Rights groups say the move is likely to “strangle” criticism of the government.
Francis later headed to a shrine at Munyonyo, near the capital Kampala, where in 1886 the Ugandan king ordered the execution of more than 40 Protestant and Catholic Christians, who are revered as martyrs.
“This is my third pope but it can’t be boring, we are blessed!” said 55-year-old Agnes Mubuya, sitting on a plastic chair wearing a yellow dress, her Sunday best. Pinned to her chest was a laminated badge reading “Welcome Pope Francis to Uganda”.
“I’d like him to talk about corruption, which is too much in Uganda. And we hope he can bring political change. He must talk to Museveni: if a pope can stand down why not a president?” she said.
“Pope Francis, he cares for all the people, the whole universe, regardless of political or religious affiliation,” said 60-year old Henry Mutambo, a Protestant, as he waited on the grass verge close to the presidential palace.
Police and soldiers armed with assault rifles or batons lined the roads and military pickups raced up and down as the pope travelled from the airport to the presidential palace in Entebbe, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Kampala.
Security has been ratcheted up for the visit over fears Islamist rebels from Al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch, the Shebab, could use the opportunity to stage attacks. But defence chief Katumba Wamala has said measures are in place and expressed confidence “all will go as planned.”
Francis has shrugged off safety fears, joking that he was “more worried about the mosquitoes”. He travels to war-torn Central African Republic (CAR) on Sunday.
“He is caring, he has mercy, he is a man of the people,” said Ugandan mother Ruth Nakiboneka, 22, sitting on the grass cradling her six-week-old daughter as the papal convoy passed.
“He should focus on homosexuality to stop it, to stop child abuse, pre-marital sex and fornication and pray for good leadership,” she added.
Earlier on Friday, Francis toured the Kenyan capital’s Kangemi slum, his popemobile weaving through a sea of tin-roofed homes in one of the most anticipated parts of his three-day visit to Nairobi.
“I am here because I want you to know that I am not indifferent to your joys and hopes, your troubles and your sorrows,” Francis told the worshippers, denouncing the “dreadful injustice of urban exclusion”.