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Pope Prepares To Visit Africa Amid Burundi Crisis


Pope Francis arrives in Kenya tomorrow for the start of a six-day African tour. His visit will also include stops in Uganda and the Central African Republic. This is the Pope's first visit to the continent, and there's a long list of issues he's likely to address, including religious intolerance, the environment and poverty. NPR's Gregory Warner is in Nairobi and joins us.

Hey Gregory.


SHAPIRO: Roman Catholics are a minority in Kenya. What kind of interest is there in this visit?

WARNER: Well, a local newspaper poll found that 93 percent of Kenyans are excited about Pope Francis's visit - that's Catholics and non. I can't vouch for those numbers. But the city is definitely abuzz. I guess the only naysayers are probably the business owners who will get fewer customers and those commuters who have to deal with some pretty bad traffic these next few days.

SHAPIRO: And, as we mentioned, this is his first trip to Africa. Tell us more about the issues he's expected to talk about.

WARNER: Well, I think one thing people will be looking to is how specific the Pope gets in his calls for change. We know he's going to be talking about poverty. He's giving a Mass at a slum here. But will he condemn a root cause, which is corruption? That's something very important to Africans. He'll also be discussing religious intolerance, we know, and probably terrorism, but will he broach ethnic conflict and political conflict?

SHAPIRO: What about gay rights? This is an issue where the pope has taken a more tolerant position than some of his predecessors. Many African bishops have criticized him for that.

WARNER: Absolutely. Homosexuality is illegal in many African countries, and there have been other issues where this pope has had a culture clash with Africa. For instance, the Synod on the Family was cited as being too focused on the European nuclear family instead of the extended family structure that is more common in Africa. So the pope will want to show that his papacy recognizes African issues, especially economic issues like poverty and corruption, especially when you consider that Africa is one of the fastest-growing Catholic populations in the world.

SHAPIRO: One of the major crises in Africa right now is a majority-Catholic country, the tiny nation of Burundi. The pope is not going to Burundi, but you have been talking to Burundians about the pope's visit. What are they saying?

WARNER: Well, Burundi is in a deep crisis right now and basically it's a fight between political parties, but the U.N. has warned it could become the next Rwandan genocide if it sparks intercommunal violence. Already hundreds have died. The U.N. will probably vote soon to send in peacekeepers. Just yesterday, America imposed sanctions on Burundian leaders. But Burundi is a major test of the pope's influence, in part because the West has had so little influence. And this is a part of the world where the West used to have enormous sway. This time Burundian officials have been unapologetically scornful of Western finger wagging even though half of Burundi's budget comes from Western aid. And in large part, maybe, you know, this is because Burundi is a tiny country. It's not strategically important. They maybe seem to think that they can fly under the radar.

SHAPIRO: So how could the pope succeed in Burundi where the West has failed?

WARNER: Well, Burundi is two-thirds Catholic, and his conference on bishops have been very tough, very outspoken, they condemned police violence against peaceful demonstrators. They refused to sanction this recent election that was seen as fraudulent. And when the bishops issue their communiques, the government at least responds. In fact, last time I was in Burundi, I was talking to this militia leader, he feared that he was going to hell - he was Catholic - because of the violence that the ruling party, the president's party, had committed against demonstrators. So the pope's visit certainly exerts a moral force that does resonate here. And also Burundi's neighbors, Kenya, Uganda, where the pope will be visiting, they've pledged to mediate Burundi's crisis. The pope's visit could spur some needed action there.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Gregory Warner in Nairobi. Thank you.

WARNER: Thanks Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.