Vast crowds celebrate pope’s first mass in Africa
Pope Francis held his first open-air mass in Africa on Thursday with huge crowds calling heavy rains “God’s blessing” as they sung and danced in the Kenyan capital.
Thousands of people queued throughout the night braving torrential rains to secure a place at the first mass celebrated by Francis on African soil.
The 78-year-old pontiff received a tumultuous welcome as he arrived in an open-topped Popemobile, smiling and waving as worshippers cheered, ululated and raised their hands in the air.
The mass at the University of Nairobi — also shown on giant television screens in neighbouring parks — was the pope’s first major public appearance and a highly-anticipated part of his three-day visit to Kenya.
Kenyan media said 200,000 people — including 9,000 priests and 60 cardinals, archbishops and bishops — crammed into the park, smiling despite the rain.
“It’s important for me to be here because I want to see the pope and hear his message… about peace, forgiveness, love and unity,” engineering student Stephen Kola told AFP.
Over his traditional white robes the pope wore a garment embroidered with Maasai-style beading specially made for him by a group of tailors living in Kangemi slum which he will visit on Friday.
Thousands of police and troops have been deployed across the city as the pontiff makes his first visit to Kenya on a six-day trip which will also take him to Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR).
During a mass punctuated by frequent bouts of lively singing and dancing Francis made a special appeal to young people to work “to shape a society which is ever more just, inclusive and respectful” of human dignity.
“May you always be concerned for the needs of the poor, and reject everything that leads to prejudice and discrimination, for these things, we know, are not of God,” Francis told the crowd, which included Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
– ‘God of peace, not violence’ –
As the rain fell, a sea of brightly-coloured umbrellas popped up, stretching as far as the eye could see, some in the white and gold of the Vatican flag.
A day after his arrival, Kenya’s main newspapers homed in on his choice of vehicle to travel from the airport: a simple grey saloon car.
“Modesty at its best as pope rides in simple car,” The Standard newspaper said, noting the stark contrast with the government’s large luxury “fuel guzzlers”.
Ahead of the mass, Francis met with religious leaders of different faiths, speaking out against the radicalisation of young people and the “barbarous attacks” carried out in the name of religion.
“All too often, young people are being radicalised in the name of religion to sow discord and fear, and to tear at the very fabric of our societies,” the pope said nearly two weeks after young jihadists, many of them French, killed 130 people in a series of gun and suicide attacks in Paris.
“The God whom we serve is a God of peace. His name must never be used to justify hatred and violence.”
Kenya has suffered numerous attacks since sending its army into neighbouring Somalia in 2011 after a string of kidnappings it blamed on Al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch, the Shebab.
The Islamist rebels have staged a string of attacks in Kenya, including an April massacre at Garissa university in which 148 people were killed, and a 2013 assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall that killed 67.
– ‘Profound role to play’ –
As he landed in Nairobi on Wednesday evening, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was greeted by joyous celebrations with choirs singing and dancers dressed in traditional feather headdresses, bright clothes and beads.
From there, he went to the presidential palace where he urged Kenya’s leaders to work with “integrity and transparency” and to battle inequality in comments alluding to the corruption and inequality that blights the country.
Francis also warned that the world was facing a “grave environmental crisis” just days before the start of a key UN climate summit in Paris. He will deliver further remarks on the environment later on Thursday when he visits the Nairobi headquarters of the United Nations.