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Pope’s plans for Central African Republic visit may change at last minute

French peacekeeping soldiers patrol the city of Bangui, Central African Republic (AP)

Pope Francis wants to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to an Africa torn by extremist violence, but security concerns are so high that he might be forced to make changes to his itinerary for the final leg of the trip.

Francis left today for his first-ever visit to the continent, a whirlwind pilgrimage to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic that marks the first time a Pope has flown into an active armed conflict: the two-year-old spiral of deadly violence between Christian and Muslims in the Central African Republic.

On the eve of the departure, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, insisted that there were no new threats and that the Pope planned to carry on with his programme, as scheduled. But in a sign that the Vatican was on alert, Francis’s own chief bodyguard made a last-minute visit to Bangui this week to get the latest on-the-ground security updates, and will only meet up with the Pope once he lands in Nairobi later today.

The bodyguard, Domenico Giani, said upon his departure that “some small modifications” could be made to the itinerary if risks emerged, especially for the civilian population or the UN peacekeeping operation.

Before he gets to conflict-wracked Central African Republic, Francis is expected to press a host of issues close to his heart in Kenya and Uganda, including poverty, the environment and the need for interfaith dialogue.

He is also likely to challenge the countries’ political leaders on corruption. Transparency International ranked Kenya a lowly 145 out of 174 countries in its 2014 corruption perception index, while critics of Ugandan President Yoweri Musevni charge that official corruption has thrived under his three-decade rule.

Francis is likely to raise the issue during his first meeting Wednesday with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who declared this week that corruption is a national security threat to East Africa’s largest economy.

While in Kenya, Francis will also deliver an environmental message at the UN Environment Programme headquarters on the eve of climate talks in Paris.

He’ll also visit a Nairobi slum and seek to encourage young Kenyan Christians following the rampage by Islamic extremists who killed nearly 150 people at a college of mostly Christian students in April.

In Uganda, Francis will pray at the shrine to the country’s famous martyrs and celebrate a Mass in their honour.

The 45 Anglicans and Catholics were killed during the persecution of Christians in the region from 1885-1887. Pope Paul VI canonised the 22 African Catholics in 1964, and they remain an important reference point for Ugandan Catholics such that some two million people are expected at Francis’s Mass on Saturday.

The Pope is due to arrive on Sunday in Bangui for the most delicate part of the trip. The country has been highly volatile since early 2013, when Muslim rebels overthrew the president of a decade. Unprecedented sectarian violence followed and has continued to flare despite the presence of more than 11,000 peacekeepers and police.

Francis is expected to encourage an interfaith peace initiative involving the archbishop, the evangelical leader and Bangui’s imam, while also giving Africa a head start to his Jubilee Year celebrations: On Sunday, he is due to open the “holy door” of Bangui’s cathedral, formally inaugurating the yearlong celebration of mercy that he has proclaimed for the Church around the world.

In a video message sent to Central African Republic Catholics this week, Francis made clear he had no plans to skip the appointment.

“Your country has known for too long a situation of violence and insecurity where many of you have become innocent victims,” he said.

“My aim is to bring you comfort, consolation and hope in the name of Jesus. A bientot, see you soon.”