VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis flew out of Rome on Wednesday, bound for Kenya on the first leg of a landmark trip to Africa fraught with security concerns.
The 78-year-old pontiff, the third pope to visit the continent, is also scheduled to visit Uganda and the troubled Central African Republic (CAR) on a six-day trip.
The CAR leg of the tour could yet be curtailed or canceled depending on security conditions in a country that had been wracked by sectarian conflict in recent years.
A densely packed schedule will see the Pope visit, among others, a shanty town in Kenya, a shrine to Christian martyrs in Uganda and both a mosque and a refugee camp in the CAR.
He is due to make a series of speeches on various issues including a major one on the environment ahead of the Paris climate change summit.
On the streets of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where Francis is due to arrive around 5:00 p.m. (9 p.m. Wednesday, Philippine time), huge billboards have been erected to welcome the pontiff.
Vast crowds are expected to turn out to see his motorcade.
“Karibu Papa Francis,” said Kenya’s Standard newspaper, or “welcome” in Swahili, also repeating the same message in Latin for the visiting clerics, “Grata Franciscus Pontifex.”
The CAR leg of the trip has been maintained despite warnings from French peacekeepers there that they cannot guarantee Francis’ security.
Vatican officials say a last-minute change of program will only happen if Francis is made aware of a precise threat that could endanger the thousands of believers expected to come and see him, many of whom will be traveling long distances from neighboring countries.
The pope is due to be welcomed in Kenya by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In a speech at the presidential residence State House, he is expected to address questions of corruption and the gulf between rich and poor, both issues of particular concern for Kenya.
Opening ‘Holy Door’
Francis is scheduled to use an open-topped popemobile regularly during a trip taking place in the wake of recent jihadist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Egypt and Mali.
Aides say he is determined that the somber backdrop will not affect his plans, particularly for the CAR part of the trip, where he is due to open a “Holy Door” in Bangui’s cathedral 10 days before the start of a Catholic Jubilee Year dedicated to the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The opening of the door in Bangui will provide a powerful symbol of Francis’s concern for those on the fringes of the Catholic community and his desire to create a “poor Church for the poor,” according to Vatican watchers.
But there is no guarantee it will happen.