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The Pope's visit starts Wednesday in Kenya, followed by stops in Uganda and the Central African Republic -- the latter a lawless conflict zone as Christian and Muslim gangs attack civilians for a second year.

His visit, which takes place despite the instability, highlights the Catholic Church's explosive growth in Africa and how crucial the region is to the church's future, experts say.

Africa's Catholic population is growing faster than any other in the world, and is expected to skyrocket in the coming years, said Bill O'Keefe, a vice president at Catholic Relief Services, a church-affiliated U.S. humanitarian group that does work in Africa.

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"The Catholic population there (Africa) has grown by 238% since 1980 and is approaching 200 million," he said, attributing the numbers to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

"If the current trends continue, 24% of Africans will be Catholic by 2040," he added.

'Unifying gesture'

Aside from visiting a region that will shape the face of the Catholic Church, the Pope's plan to stop at a mosque in the Central African Republic sends a powerful message, experts say.

"The Holy Father is intentionally reaching across religious lines that have been used by elites and factions in the Central African Republic to try to divide the population," said O'Keefe.

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"It is a unifying gesture to visit mosques and a way of modeling behavior for Central Africans of all faiths."

In the Central African Republic, a Muslim rebel group overthrew the Christian president two years ago, prompting reprisal attacks against civilians by both Christian and Muslim militia. Those attacks continue to this day, and have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Outbreak of sectarian violence in Bangui

Kenya and Uganda have also had their share of religious extremism. Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan university in April, killing nearly 150 people, mostly Christians. In 2010, militants aligned with the same group attacked Uganda, killing dozens.

The Pope's visit with different religious leaders is a major boost to the assorted groups working to restore peace.

"He is putting his stamp of support for the work of Catholic, Islamic, and Protestant leaders in the Central African Republic, who have courageously worked together to dampen down interfaith tensions and build social cohesion among communities," O'Keefe said.

Choice of nations symbolic

The nations hosting the Pope have their own unique narratives of success and failure. But they also have one thing in common: sizable Catholic populations.

Uganda had 14 million Catholics in 2010 -- nearly a half of its population -- according to a Pew Research Center report.
Dramatic photos from C.A.R.

Neighboring Kenya had 9 million -- nearly a quarter of the population -- during the same time period.  The Central African Republic had about 1.3 million, according to a Pew Research Center report on Global Christianity.

Numbers aside, the Pope's choice of the three nations aligns with his image as an ardent champion of the suffering and less fortunate.

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"While many in the West are accustomed to thinking of themselves at the center of things and places like Africa at the periphery, Pope Francis seems to have the opposite view: the poor are at the center of the Church so that is where the Pope should go," O'Keefe said.

And his choice of countries represents the assorted challenges facing the continent, he added.

"Kenya is one of many African countries experiencing significant economic growth.  There is much to be hopeful about there. But the poor still face innumerable challenges and development gains have not been shared equitably," O'Keefe said.

"The Church has much work to do to minister to the spiritual needs of a growing population facing rapid change, urbanization and social tensions."

'Pastors must have the smell of the sheep'

Since taking on the leadership role, Pope Francis has made it clear that the downtrodden are a priority.

Times Pope Francis has surprised us

During his visit to the Kenyan capital, he'll go to Kangemi, a shantytown in the outskirts of Nairobi.  In the Central African Republic, his stops will include a visit to a refugee camp.

"One thing that he points out very clearly is creativity in getting to reach the people and smell. He says pastors must have the smell of the sheep," said Bishop John Oballa Owaa of the Ngong Diocese in Nairobi.

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"They must live among them, they must reach them, they must access them."

The Pope's trip is expected to boost morale, together with the number of faithful in the region.

"From what we have experienced in the past, both before the visit of the holy father and afterward, there is quite an increase in the number of people who wish to embrace Catholic faith," Owaa said.

"The increase of vocations to priesthood, to sisterhood, to brotherhood."

Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict, also visited Africa.  During his nearly three decades in the papacy, Pope John Paul II also made dozens of trips to the continent.

Credit: CNN


Story By Faith Karimi, CNN
CNN's Robyn Kriel contributed to this report

The schedule of the Roman Pontiff's visit is as follows :

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

07:45 Departure from Rome Fiumicino to Nairobi, Kenya

17:00 Arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi

Welcome ceremony at the State House

18:00 Courtesy visit to the President of the Republic at the State House in Nairobi

18:30 Meeting with the civil authorities of Kenya and with the diplomatic corps

Thursday, November 26, 2015

08:15 Interreligious and Ecumenical Meeting in the Salon of the Apostolic Nunciature in Nairobi

10:00 Holy Mass on the Campus of the University of Nairobi

15:45 Meeting with clergy, religious men and women, and seminarians, at the athletic field of St Mary’s School

17:30 Visit to the United Nations Office in Nairobi (U.N.O.N.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

08:30 Visit to the poor neighbourhood of Kangemi in Nairobi

10:00 Meeting with young people in Kasarani Stadium

11:15 Meeting with the Bishops of Kenya in the VIP room of the Stadium

15:10 Farewell ceremony at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi

15:15 Departure by air from Nairobi for Entebbe

16:50 Arrival at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda

Saturday, November 28, 2015

08:30 Visit to the Anglican Sanctuary of the Martyrs at Namugongo

09:00 Visit to the Catholic Sanctuary of the Martyrs at Namugongo

09:30 Holy Mass for the Martyrs of Uganda in the area of the Catholic Sanctuary

15:15 Meeting with youth at Kololo Air Strip in Kampala

17:00 Visit to the House of Charity of Nalukolongo

18:00 Meeting with the Bishops of Uganda in the Residence of the Archbishop

19:00 Meeting with priests, religious men and women, and seminarians in the Cathedral

Sunday, November 29, 2015

09:00 Farewell ceremony at the Airport of Entebbe

09:15 Departure by air from Entebbe for Bangui in the Central African Republic

10:00 Arrival at M’Poko International Airport of Bangui

Welcome ceremony

11:00 Courtesy visit to the president of the state of transition in the Presidential Palace "de la Renaissance”

11:30 Meeting with civic leaders and with the diplomatic corps

12:15 Visit to a refugee camp

13:00 Meeting with the Bishops of the Central African Republic

16:00 Meeting with the Evangelical Community at the headquarters of FATEB (the Faculty of Evangelical Theology of Bangui)

17:00 Holy Mass with priests, religious men and women, catechists, and young people at the Cathedral of Bangui

19:00 Confessions of some young people; and the beginning of the Vigil of Prayer in front of the Cathedral

Monday, November 30, 2015

08:15 Meeting with the Muslim community in the central Mosque of Koudoukou in Bangui

09:30 Holy Mass in the Stadium at the Barthélémy Boganda Sports Complex

12:15 Departure ceremony at M’Poko International Airport of Bangui

12:30 Departure by air for Rome

18:45 Arrival at Rome/Ciampino Airport