KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) Thousands of cheerful Catholics lined the streets near Entebbe International Airport waving yellow-and-white Vatican flags, singing songs and ululating -- the distinctive African trill -- in anticipation of Pope Francis.
Many in the crowd had gathered before dawn, even though the pope wasn't expected to arrive until late afternoon.
“We are happy today because Pope is finally coming here,” said Kennedy Kiwanuka. “Our prayers have been answered. We will keep praying during his stay here. We need his blessing.”
The pontiff’s six-day tour began in Kenya Wednesday (Nov. 25) and concludes in the Central African Republic on Sunday.
After greeting dignitaries, churchmen and groups of the faithful, the pope is scheduled to visit the Munyonyo Martyrs' Shrine on Saturday (Nov. 28), the spot where an African king in the 19th century ordered a massacre of Christians.
Francis is expected to discuss themes he raised in Kenya -- confronting corruption, ending tribalism and religious animosity. He will also likely talk about economic development that benefits the poor rather than elites who retain a stranglehold over the region’s small-but-growing economy.
Preparations for the visit have been taking place for weeks. At least 300 choir members were holding last-minute rehearsals at the shrine on Friday morning as the Pope concluded his visit in Kenya.
Ugandan Police Inspector General Kale Kayihura said his officers had spent much of Friday sweeping neighborhoods and meeting with residents living in areas where Pope Francis and his entourage will pass through during his visit. He said he wasn't taking any chances.
“Terrorism is an animal which is difficult to define, and you can’t tell when or where it will strike,” said Kayihura.
A treatment center for the disabled in Kampala, is among the last stops on the pope’s itinerary.
More than 700 sick, elderly and disabled people from several dioceses countrywide will gather there to meet the pope on Saturday before he departs for the Central African Republic.
“We need a message of hope that can help some of us to accept the life we are going through,” said Lydia Namubiru, who lost her eyesight in a car accident.
The pope’s visit comes as Africa’s role in the Catholic Church is increasing. Africa is the fast growing continent for both Christians and Muslims, according to a report by Pew Research Center. Both Islam and Christianity are expected to gain more than twice as many adherents in the region by 2050. Christians are expected to increase in number from 517 million to more than 1.1 billion by 2050.
As the first pope from outside Europe in nearly 1,300 years, the Argentine pontiff has also been appointing more cardinals from Africa and the developing world in order to increase the continent’s role in decision-making in Rome.
Ugandans are conscious of the change.
“Uganda is one of the luckiest nations (in the world) to be able to host the pope,” said Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. “This church in Africa is very well recognized, and it has played a very positive role in shaping people's moral and spiritual development, promoting education, health and other related social economic development.”
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