LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Pope Francis heads to Africa tomorrow. He'll visit Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, which is currently torn by a civil war between Christians and Muslim militias. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports the pope is expected to focus on social justice issues and escalating religious tensions.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: A group of African nuns and priests met recently in Rome to discuss the challenges facing the Catholic Church in their homelands. Nigerian nun Bernadette Duru says the African church hierarchy is indifferent to people in rural areas.
BERNADETTE DURU: So many of us that are in a rural area, the church forgets us. We don't have support.
POGGIOLI: Father Jude Nnorom also criticized his church leaders, saying the simple lifestyle followed by Pope Francis should challenge African bishops to ask themselves...
JUDE NNOROM: Are we proclaiming the gospel when we drive the best cars, when we live in the best houses? Or should we be actually - as the pope says - should we actually make our hands dirty? Should we smell, as he says, like the sheep? And the sheep majority are those who are suffering, those who are in anguish and those who are poor.
POGGIOLI: Catholicism is growing fast in Africa, but it's also facing competition from Islam and evangelicals. And many areas are experiencing ethnic and sectarian divisions. In Kenya, the pope's expected to offer encouragement after the April massacre of nearly 150 students by al-Shabaab Islamist militants who targeted Christians. Father Nnorom says he hopes the pope's travels in Africa will help end all the wars ravaging the continent.
NNOROM: The unnecessary killing and violence - I mean, in Central Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, in Somalia and other parts of Africa - that it will be stopped and people learn to talk more instead of killing one another.
POGGIOLI: The six-day trip includes visits with the poor in a Nairobi slum, the sanctuary of Christian martyrs in Uganda, victims of war at a refugee camp and a mosque in the Central African Republic, or CAR. The Vatican has said that what would be the first papal visit to a war zone is going ahead as planned. But the situation on the ground will be monitored up to the last minute. Francis wants very much to go to CAR, where he plans to jumpstart the Jubilee Year of Mercy by 10 days with a ceremonial opening of the Holy Door of Bangui Cathedral. Missionary Father Giulio Albanese says that would be an unprecedented event.
GIULIO ALBANESE: It will be the first time in the history of the church that Jubilee starts in the outskirts of mankind. The message of Pope Francis is very clear in this regard. We have to look at the poor. We have to support them in the outskirts, not in the palace.
POGGIOLI: The pope is also expected to denounce the massive gap between rich and poor and corruption at all levels of African society. African gays, who often face jail terms for their sexual orientation, hope Francis brings a message of tolerance. Catholic leaders hope he avoids the topic. And with so much at stake at the climate change talks opening in Paris next week, the outspoken environmentalist is expected to deliver scathing words on global warming and exploitation of the earth's raw materials, many of which lay in African soil. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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