Even With Billions of Followers Can Pope Francis's African Tour Affect Things On The Ground?

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Pope Francis in Uganda


[Analysis: November Papal African Tour]


Will Pope Francis's appeal to Christians not to just "stand by" in the face of injustice which he made during his visit to three African countries last month make a difference?

Pope Francis embarked on his first African tour, traversing three countries: Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR).

This was the second papal visit to Kenya (Pope John Paul in 1980), the third for Uganda (Pope Paul VI in 1969 and Pope John Paul II in 1993) and the first for CAR.

In modern times, papal visits to Africa have become a regular ritual. Pope Paul VI was the first to visit Africa in 1969 and in his 26 years of papacy, he set a record by visiting 42 African countries along with 87 other countries.

A papal visit always attracts millions of people in person and a lot more via the radio, TV, print media and the internet. The pope is the leader of about 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. More than any other leader in modern times, he has the largest number of followers, which gives him enormous potential power to influence what happens in the world.

Where the pope visits is always carefully chosen with two main goals in mind: spiritual and earthly. Kenya, Uganda and CAR met these criteria because they all share some problems and yet they have their own peculiarities.

Obviously a common theme for a papal visit is to validate and strengthen the faith of Catholics and those of Christians and other religious people in general.

To experience a papal visit in one’s life time is always a dream come true for the faithful. Even non-Catholics feel that a papal visit is spiritually uplifting. This is especially true of Pope Francis who has won the admiration of many people with his progressive views on various religious and social issues.

Apart from sharing religious faith, the chosen countries share some of the same socio- economic and political problems. For instance, Kenya is in constant fear of terrorist attacks from Al-Shabaab and is still recovering from the nasty post election violence of 2007.

National unity is just a veneer above simmering inter-nationality conflicts.


Uganda is also still reeling from the over 20 years of was between the national army, the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony.

In CAR, Christians and Muslims are in a vicious civil war. So in CAR, the overriding concern is the civil war where Christians and Muslims have been fighting for years.

No wonder, the pope’s message of peace and reconciliation seems to resonate with the people.

While the three countries share many features by virtue of being developing African countries, each also has its own peculiarity. Thus, each leg of the papal trip was designed to target each country’s particular situation.

In Kenya, the pope appeared to have targeted the tension between Christians and Muslims as manifested in the Al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks in which Christians were specifically killed in several locations including the Westgate Mall, Garissa University College and others. Likewise, there have been specific extra judicial killings of some Muslim leaders.

In Uganda, the pope’s visit was directed mainly toward commemorating the 50th anniversary of the canonization of what are referred to as Ugandan Martyrs.
 
However, there were many hot social issues that concern Ugandans which the pope did not focus on directly. For example, Uganda's president, Gen. Yoweri Museveni called gay people "disgusting" and even encouraged an anti-gay law, later annulled on a legal technicality, that criminalizes gay sexuality, punishable by long term imprisonment; a previous version of the law debated by Parliament called for death by execution.

While the pope’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, encouragement and dignity was well received, his visit was also disappointing. For example, the pope was reported to have proclaimed Uganda "a great country." One wonders what criteria he used. Does a great country allow its national police force to strip naked an opposition female politician as happened a month before the pope’s visit?

Would a great country constantly arrest opposition politicians on trumped up charges to restrict their political freedom as General Museveni’s regime has been doing?
How can Uganda, ranked the 7th-worst in upholding the rule of law in the world be "great"?

No; a great country is not one whose leader clings to power by corruption, deceit, coercion and suppression of dissent as Gen. Museveni has for the last 30 years.

A great country would not allow its state agents to kidnap and torture its citizens just because they support an opposition party as it did to a 23-year-old man from Gulu District just a few days before the pope’s visit.

While speaking at a home for the destitute, the pope said, “As Christians, we cannot simply stand by. Something must change.”

Indeed. Although Pope Francis was concerned about the destitute in the particular place, his appeal also applies to the larger context of society. The question is whether those who appear to admire him will act to change society for the better.

Based on the experience of the past 46 years since Pope Paul VI first visited Africa in modern times, in 1969, it is fair to conclude that papal visits have minimal social, political and economic effect on the continent unless the people make it happen.

If the strongmen of Africa have ignored appeals to yield to the younger generation from President Obama, the leader of the most powerful country in the world; or if they fail to emulate great African leaders like the late presidents, Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere, of South Africa and Tanzania respectively, or to appeals from their local religious leaders, the visit of another pope will not move them to change society for the better.

While some of the faithful fervently believe in the pope’s ability to perform miracles, the reality is that his message alone will not perform miracles.

Instead people should learn from the experience of the martyrs who died for freedom of religion. In Kenya, the CAR, and Uganda people are struggling to win freedom from political and economic oppression and exploitation.

In the upcoming February 18, 2016 election in Uganda, those who want an end to President Museveni’s 30-year rule must take advantage of the pope’s encouragement and plea of not simply "standing by."

They must act decisively to make it happen regardless of the regime’s efforts to rig the election in its favor.  
 

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