NAIROBI, Kenya – Security forces are readying for Pope Francis' 3-nation Africa tour this week amid fears of jihadist attacks and violence, with authorities insisting the pontiff's trip can pass off peacefully.
The 5-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR), which have significant Catholic communities but have been troubled by civil conflicts and violence, has led to increased security concerns.
Authorities plan to deploy around 10,000 police in the capitals of Kenya and Uganda during the pope's visit, which will include giant open-air masses.
Nairobi and Kampala are both targets for Al-Qaeda's East Africa branch, the Shebab, because they have troops deployed in Somalia.
"All the arrangements are in place," Kenyan police chief Joseph Boinett said ahead of the visit, which starts on Wednesday, November 25.
Kenya has suffered Shebab gun attacks on a university in Garissa in April, in which 148 people died, and on a mall in Nairobi in 2013 when at least 67 were killed.
In both cases, Christians were specifically targeted. In Uganda, Shebab bombers killed 76 people in restaurant attacks in 2010 in Kampala.
In CAR, the United Nations said it will move hundreds of peacekeepers from Ivory Coast to bolster security for both the pope's trip and national elections due in late December. CAR has been ensnared in civil war since 2013, with the country split between Muslim and Christian populations.
The situation remains volatile in the country – including in the capital Bangui where Francis is due to spend a little over 24 hours – and the insecurity may cause the CAR leg of the pope's Africa tour to be cancelled.
"We will see on the basis of the situation on the ground at the time whether we go ahead," Vatican official Pietro Parolin told Catholic newspaper Avvenire last week.
Kenyan newspaper The Standard has warned of a "security nightmare".
Perhaps the trickiest moment for Kenyan security will come on Friday, November 27, when Francis is due to visit Kangemi, a congested, tin-roofed slum on the outskirts of Nairobi that is home to some 200,000 people.
"Security will be a particularly important challenge," Kenya's Nation newspaper said in an editorial. "Unlike President Obama's visit, this will be one in which hundreds of thousands will flock to the streets and the security services will need to be at the top of their game."
Kenya successfully hosted the US president for two days in July. But then Nairobi was locked down, residents were urged to stay home, US military helicopters buzzed overhead and armored convoys carried Obama between heavily-guarded locations.
For the pope's visit, the situation will be very different.
"Unlike the visit by President Barack Obama when the government encouraged Kenyans to stay home, we are encouraging Kenyans to flock into the city in their numbers to cheer the pope and celebrate mass with him," said government spokesman Manoah Esipisu.
"Security arrangements have been made and put in place, right from arrival to coverage of all the routes that he will be using, the venues, residences including providing security for the visitors who will be coming to visit this city," Kenyan police chief Boinett said.
'Raise the stakes'
Bishop Alfred Rotich, who is heading the church's preparations in Kenya, predicts more than a million people will attend mass with the pope on Thursday, November 26.
"We expect 10% of (Kenyan Catholics), or 1.4 million from all over the country, to attend the papal high mass here in Nairobi," Rotich said, adding that the church was also expecting up to 60 cardinals, archbishops and bishops from across East Africa, with 9,000 extra priests drafted in to help.
In Uganda, security forces say they too are ready, including preparing for some 100,000 people to see the pope at the Kololo Independence grounds in Kampala on Saturday, November 28.
"The threats have always been coming from Shebab," Ugandan police spokesman Fred Enanga said. "We have to raise the stakes."
Torrential downpours may provide another challenge with East Africa in the midst of unusually heavy El Niño rains.
Nairobi and Kampala's infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the heavy downpour that is forecast for later this week, and much of the pope's public program takes place outdoors.
For now CAR remains on the pope's schedule, but the situation might change.
Former colonial power France has said the visit is "risky," warning that French troops on the ground cannot ensure his safety.
Acting CAR president Catherine Samba-Panza might cut the visit to a few hours in Bangui airport under the watchful gaze of UN peacekeepers. – Peter Martell, AFP / Rappler.com