In a chaotic time, Pope\'s visit to Africa

| Updated: October 22, 2017 09:08:55

In a chaotic time, Pope\'s visit to Africa
No matter wherever in the world mass killings or terrorist attacks happen - our feelings elicit shock, fear and revulsion. With endless reports about deaths and destruction due to mass shootings and bombings, the psychological sequelae of any kind of terror attack can be from mild to severe. A reign of terror is being inflicted on people by racists, religious bigots, demented individuals or terrorist groups today. We are living through fear of a repeat attack because it is happening all too often.
Nowadays, we simply can't hide from the reality that an attack can happen at any given time. It is a helpless feeling because we can't tell when or where terror will strike again. More often than not, our senses have become muted as such news can be a shock to anyone's system. The world has seen too many deaths and destruction this year. 
According to groups who monitor such killings, in the US alone there were 355 mass shootings in 2015. Hundreds more became victims of gun violence as people's penchant for gun collection is more prevalent than before. Such shootings have no parallel elsewhere in the world. 
In the last two weeks, two separate parts of the United States became headline news because innocent people became victims of gun violence. First, a gunman in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
This past Wednesday in San Bernardino, California, a couple of Pakistani origin, dressed in black and wearing body armour, stormed into a holiday party, killed 14 people and injured another 21 county residents/employees. This second incident took place right after president Obama returned from the Paris climate summit.
After the shootings, the triage outside the building looked like the aftermath of  a battle. Authorities are still trying to piece together the reasons and the motive behind these senseless murders. On Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI has formally announced the agency is investigating the shooting as terrorism. 
The US president is very frustrated about his inability to control gun violence; he wants a change in gun laws on the national level. Because of the current lax gun control laws, an individual can have multiple shotguns and hunting rifles in his/her possession. According to a Reuters report, a South Carolina man named Brent Nicholson was hoarding about 5,000 stolen guns in his home. The authorities seized those guns, and are now trying to locate the original owners. 
Since the California shooting, the age-old debate between lawmakers and politicians with regard to stricter gun laws has sprung up again. One group wants to curb gun violence and put a slew of new restrictions to firearm purchase. 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump and Ben Carson argue that the only way to reduce gun violence is by empowering citizens to have access to more guns, i.e., by making it easier to purchase firearm and carrying weapons. 
Violent occurrences now are a part of our daily life, which can be a shock to anyone's system. For survival, one has to have a coping mechanism. In today's world, it is impossible to avoid or shut out the sad events that are happening. Anywhere one goes, whether a café, shopping mall or a movie theatre, at the back of one's mind one is always thinking whether a crazy person will walk in any moment, and start shooting indiscriminately. 
Amidst such fear and threats of violence, we go through the motions of daily life. Every now and then a certain piece of news makes me stop and contemplate as to what we are really facing, and what we are up against. During those times, I recognise the fragility of life. 
Day after the California shooting mentioned above, the New York Daily News headline said, "God is not fixing this." Last Sunday afternoon was another moment as I was reading an opinion piece by Roger Cohen of the New York Times. His article was titled 'World War III'. The format of the article captivated me. It was in a conversational form between a mother and her young child about the wars, chaos, confusion and millions of deaths in the last hundred years - from the time of the World War I to the present war-ridden Syria. It was a crash course on world history presented in a deceptively simplistic way. It read like a fairytale story with simple illustrations where a young mind could see the entire picture without being traumatised by gruesome war stories.
When the mother came to the Syrian part after Russia intensified its attacks on ISIS, the child asked, "So did they win?" The mother's response was as follows: "Not quite. Many of the people who wanted to get rid of the tyrant were Sunni Muslims. They had the backing of Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni Central and hates Iran and has supported Sunni fanatics. Turkey, which was the successor to the Ottoman Empire and hates the Syrian tyrant, also got on the rebel team. But Turkey hates another people in Syria called the Kurds even more than the tyrant - so much it's been ready in a sneaky way to help one group of Sunni crazies who slit throats, kill Kurds and shoot people in Western cities."
The baffled child says, "Mom, I'm confused."
Aren't we all? 
It makes me think…. can all mothers explain the deaths and destruction of today in a natural way without causing dread and fear to a child? How do we really explain to our youngsters that in order to root out extreme radicalism, the western countries are doing what they are, and are not going to start a World War III? (Can we be entirely sure they will not start WW III?) How do we justify that out of hatred and to seek revenge, violence has been propagated in the name of a religion? 
The above questions worry everyday citizens, the heads of states and the religious leaders, even the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. 
POPE FRANCIS PREACHES RECONCILIATION: Right after the Paris attacks, Francis was on an African tour from November 25 through 30. He went to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. During his visit, the pontiff tackled the issues ranging from Islamic extremism to climate change. His visit came at a time when the African countries are struggling on many fronts with few options. 
In the recent years, the role of the Catholic Church has increased dramatically in Africa. As the first non-European Pope in nearly 1,300 years, Francis has given appointments to many African cardinals to give legitimacy to this ignored continent so that they can have an influence in Vatican's decision-making process. 
According to a study by Pew Research Center, Africa is a fast-growing continent with both Muslim and Christian population who are at odds with each other. Both Islam and Christianity in Africa are expected to grow to twice the number by 2050.  
In Kenya's capital, Nairobi, Francis recalled "barbarous attacks" at Nairobi's Westgate Mall, Garissa University and Mandera County in northeastern Kenya. "The attacks led by al-Shabaab terrorists left more than 220 dead in 2013 and 2015."
Because of poverty, all throughout Africa, a lot of the Catholic Africans are now joining the priesthood; there has been a 14 per cent increase in recent years. They are primarily seeking a way-out of poverty by joining the order. Their basic needs like housing and food are given to them. In addition, they get a free education at the seminaries.
The African leaders have colossal wealth, although it is concentrated in the hands of a few. For generations, Africa has been getting loans from different organisations and donor countries. It is estimated that over 33 per cent of the money is hidden in Swiss banks for the African elites. In Uganda, the elites retain control over the region's small but growing economy. In Kenya, the ports and trades are controlled by the smugglers who are in cohorts with the political and economic elite. 
For fear of offending his hosts, the Pope had to carefully balance his observations during the visit. He pressed the African leaders to become more progressive by investing in the education sector for their future generation. His remarks included the fact of young men and women lacking education, work, housing and basic healthcare. 
Kenyan economy fails to provide any meaningful means of income and sustenance to its poor people. With rising effects of climate change, corruption, AIDS pandemic and explosive population growth, Kenya remains one of the poorest countries in East Africa.  
The Pope lashed out at the nation's leaders for neglecting the poor. CNN highlighted Pope visiting a shantytown in Kangemui at the outskirts of Nairobi. He was appalled to see open sewer system where people are living in tin-roofed homes under deplorable conditions. He called the injustices against the poor as "new forms of colonialism." Pope was overwhelmed after seeing so much poverty and lamented that even God is not used to seeing so much suffering. 
Pope Francis was very persistent in emphasising the importance of taking action against radicalism because without that the cancer will grow and its evil will spread around the continent. "Together," he said, "we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself and God must never be used to justify hatred and violence." 
In Uganda, Pope's tone was a little more hopeful because he said the people there are conscious of the changes around the world. His sentiments were echoed by Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda who said, "This church in Africa is very well recognised, 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."
In Kampala, thousands waited behind the barricades to have a glance at the Pope. There, he talked about the same theme that he raised in Kenya - development that benefits the poor and urged the Muslims and the Christians to live in harmony. 
During his last stop at the Central African Republic, Pope Francis addressed the question of religiously inspired violence again. The fighting between Christians and Muslims has affected the country for years. In Bangui, Muslims and Christians have slaughtered each other in the last two years. More than 400,000 people have been displaced. 
With very tight security, Pope made the riskiest venture when he went to a mosque in Bangui. Before entering the mosque, the Pope took off his shoes according to custom. In that particular region called the PK-5, the Muslim minority has been isolated for months as the rival militia group stands guard. Because of Pope's visit, the barricade was broken for about three hours. Standing in the mosque, the pontiff spoke of reconciliation across faith and said, "Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters."
In Bangui, Pope appealed to the Muslim clerics for Muslim-Christian unity. Without naming the Paris attacks, he reminded everyone that young people are being radicalised in the name of religion to sow discord and extreme fear.
Geopolitically, Africa has remained a neglected continent. Pope Francis dubbed it as a "continent of hope." During his visit, hundreds of volunteers gathered to sweep the litter-filled streets, put gravel on the mud road that led to the mosque in Bangui and put new lights everywhere. With a visit from this iconic figure, Africa has benefited through the visitors' expenditure, and some small scale infrastructure development. 
Since becoming Pope, Francis has made humility and helping the poor hallmarks of his papal tenure. He has denounced violence in every form and shape. He has talked about the Christians killing the Muslims. He talked about the Christians in the Middle East and Africa getting slaughtered by the Muslim militants. His overall message is on religious reform and tolerance. Pope's message during the Africa tour was about hope, unity and reconciliation when he said, it is important that "we be seen as prophets of peace, peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect." 
The writer is a US-based freelancer. 

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