Pope Francis tells Kenya’s Christian and Muslim leaders to be ‘prophets of peace’

Dialogue among the faiths isn't a luxury or optional, he said, but simply 'essential' to stop young people being radicalised.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the University of Nairobi on November 26, 2015. L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP
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NAIROBI // Pope Francis told Christian and Muslim leaders in Kenya on Thursday that they have little choice but to engage in dialogue to guard against the “barbarous” extremist attacks that have struck the country.

Religious leaders need to be “prophets of peace”, he said at a meeting with representatives of Kenya’s faith groups, including Anglicans, other Protestants, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews.

His comments were echoed by Abdulghafur El Busaidy, head of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, who said Christians and Muslims must work together to accommodate one another.

“We should not step back,” Mr El Busaidy said. “We have to lead, because we are led by the word of God.”

The pope insisted that religion can never be used to justify violence and lamented that “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”.

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 per cent of the population.

In the meeting, Pope Francis referred explicitly to three recent attacks claimed by the Somalia-based Al Shabab, saying he knew well that the memories were still fresh in Kenya’s mind.

In April, the Al Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for the attack on a mostly Christian college in north-eastern Kenya that left some 150 people dead. A month before, Al Shabab claimed responsibility for attacks in Mandera county on the Somali border in which 12 people died. And in September 2013, at least 67 people were killed in an attack by Al Shabab militants on the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

Kenya has sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union force fighting the group.

The pontiff later celebrated 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 in the grounds of the University of Nairobi.

On his first full day in Kenya, Pope 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 3am, braving heavy showers that turned the grounds into thick puddles of mud. Others waited in queues 3 kilometres deep to get close to the venue.

But the size of the crowd 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, the pope 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 bishops from the continent have been at the forefront in insisting that traditional church teachings on marriage and sexuality, and its opposition to abortion, be strongly emphasised.

Pope Francis obliged on Thursday, 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”.

On Friday, the pope arrives in Uganda for the second leg of his trip.

* Associated Press