Vatican City: Africa remains fertile territory for the Catholic Church but the rise of Islamism and competition from evangelical churches have left it facing tough challenges as Pope Francis prepares for his first visit to the continent.
As believer numbers dwindle in many industrialised countries, Africa has picked up the slack.
In 1980, one in seven of the world’s Catholics was born in Africa. By 2012 that figure had risen to one in six, according to researchers at Georgetown University.
Strong population growth points to the trend continuing and important voices within the Church, such as the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, have suggested the continent can be the catalyst for a regeneration of Catholicism worldwide.
Others are more circumspect, arguing that the faith, brought to Africa by missionaries only a century and a half ago, has shallow roots in the continent and that its Christian culture is fragile.
Father Angelo Romano, an Africa expert in the Sant’Egidio community, sees elements of light and shade when assessing where the Church is on the eve of Francis’s trip to Kenya, Uganda and the Central Africa Republic.
“The African Church has a missionary vocation, tries to promote peace and coexistence with other faiths and is always supportive of democracy,” he said.
“But its lay structures are still too weak and the clergy has difficulty keeping up with the changes African society is going through.”
In all three countries he is due to visit, Francis will find Christian communities on the defensive in the face of Islamic radicalism.
Uganda and Kenya are both involved in combatting Somalian jihadists who killed 148 people at Kenya’s Garissa university in April while the CAR has witnessed gruesome scenes of sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.
Priests on the ground in all three countries fear mosques financed by Gulf monarchies are allowing radical preachers to promote fundamentalist interpretations of the Islamic faith.
Meanwhile Pentecostal and other evangelical churches are mushrooming in poorer neighbourhoods, capitalising on a more festive approach to worship, a simpler, often more hardline, message and their charismatic-mystical elements to draw hundreds of thousands of Catholics away from the Church.
“These Churches are the product of all the established Churches – Catholic, Protestant or Anglican – to adapt to local cultures,” said Father Giulio Albanese, Radio Vatican’s Africa expert. Catholic liturgy has remained too Roman and services are too sombre for African tastes, observers say.