NAIROBI: Pope Francis waves to the crowd at the University of Nairobi as he arrives to deliver a giant open-air mass yesterday. Pope Francis held his first open-air mass in Africa yesterday with huge crowds calling heavy rains “God’s blessing” as they sung and danced in the Kenyan capital. — AFP
NAIROBI: Pope Francis waves to the crowd at the University of Nairobi as he arrives to deliver a giant open-air mass yesterday. Pope Francis held his first open-air mass in Africa yesterday with huge crowds calling heavy rains “God’s blessing” as they sung and danced in the Kenyan capital. — AFP

NAIROBI: Pope Francis told Christian and Muslim leaders in Kenya yesterday that they have little choice but to engage in dialogue to guard against the “barbarous” Islamic extremist attacks that have struck Kenya, saying they need to be “prophets of peace.” Francis met with a small group of Kenya’s faith leaders before celebrating his first public Mass on the continent, a joyful, rain-soaked celebration of an estimated 300,000 faithful, including Kenya’s president. The Argentine pope, who has never been to Africa before, was treated to ululating Swahili singers, swaying nuns, Maasai tribesmen and traditional dancers at the Mass on the grounds of the University of Nairobi.

On his first full day in Kenya, Francis received a raucous welcome from the crowd as he zoomed around in his open-sided popemobile, some 10,000 police providing security. Some people had been at the university since 3 a.m., braving heavy showers that turned the grounds into thick puddles of mud. Others waited in queues 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) deep to get close to the venue. But the size of the crowd – estimated by both police and the Vatican – was far smaller than the 1.4 million that Kenyan authorities had expected after declaring Thursday a national holiday. Vatican officials had predicted a maximum of a half-million people, and the lower number was likely due in large part to the weather.

In his homily, Francis appealed for traditional family values, calling for Kenyans to “resist practices which foster arrogance in men, hurt or demean women, don’t care for the elderly and threaten the life of the innocent unborn.” The African church is among the most conservative in the world, and African bishops have been at the forefront in insisting that traditional church teachings on marriage and sexuality, and its opposition to abortion, be strongly emphasized.

Francis obliged, but also stressed issues of his own concern: He called for Kenyans to shape a more just society that looks out for the poor and to “reject everything that leads to prejudice and discrimination, for these things are not of God.” Francis heads later to the UN regional headquarters in Nairobi for an environment speech.

Today, he arrives in Uganda for the second leg of his trip. Earlier Thursday, Francis met with about 25 representatives of Kenya’s faith groups: Anglicans, other Protestants, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews. The pope insisted that religion can never be used to justify violence and lamented that “all too often, young people are being radicalized in the name of religion to sow discord and fear, and to tear at the very fabric of our societies.” He said dialogue among the faiths isn’t a luxury or optional, but is simply “essential.” Kenya, a former British colony, is majority Christian. Muslims represent about 10 percent of the population. — AP