Pope honours Ugandan martyrs on Africa tour

Pope Francis prays at the Anglican martyrs shrine in Namugongo on Nov 28, 2015.
Pope Francis prays at the Anglican martyrs shrine in Namugongo on Nov 28, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS
Pope Francis (centre) arrives at a mass for the martyrs of Uganda on Nov 28, 2015.
Pope Francis (centre) arrives at a mass for the martyrs of Uganda on Nov 28, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

NAMUGONGO, Uganda (AFP) - Vast crowds of Ugandans greeted Pope Francis on Saturday as he honoured Christians martyred for the faith on the second leg of a landmark trip to Africa, which he dubbed "the continent of hope".

The 78-year-old pontiff received a rapturous welcome as he arrived at a shrine to the martyrs at Namugongo, just outside the capital Kampala, where some 45 Christians were executed in 1886 for refusing to recant their faith.

Wild cheers and singing broke out as Francis arrived at the open air shrine. Over 100,000 people had waited from before dawn to attend the mass, a key highlight of his visit to Uganda.

Later, he will meet with young Ugandans at a huge ceremonial ground in the capital's Kololo district.

Catholic faithful from neighbouring war-torn South Sudan also came for the mass, travelling for 12 hours by bus to catch a glimpse of the Argentine pope, who has made humility and help for the poor a hallmark of his tenure.

Despite the hot and muggy weather, Jonathon Ssali said he had managed to sell about 55 souvenir scarves during the morning, each one emblazoned with the pope's image alongside the red, black and yellow of the Ugandan flag.

"This is helping me make a little money," said the 21-year-old, who came up with the idea of selling the souvenirs, each costing 10,000 Ugandan shillings (S$4.20), in June.

"I'm excited, it's my first time to see a pope. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1993, I was just about to be born," said Ssali, who is Protestant.

"I want to hear his powerful words of unity and compassion," said 37-year-old Anthony Beda from South Sudan, wearing a pope badge and waving a flag with the pontiff's face on it.

"If there's one country he should visit, it's South Sudan," Beda told AFP, saying it could help stop the civil war there. "There's a lot of corruption and conflict there. I would love him to go... It would be a blessing."

Francis, who railed against corruption and wealthy minorities who hoard resources at the expense of the poor during his three days in Kenya, struck a more optimistic tone in Uganda since arriving in the neighbouring east African nation late Friday (Nov 27).

In his opening speech, Francis said his visit was "meant to draw attention to Africa as a whole: its promise, its hopes, its struggles and its achievements," saying: "The world looks to Africa as the continent of hope." Travelling from the airport, he chose to ride in a small hatchback car as waving crowds thronged the roadside.

Veteran Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, widely expected to be re-elected next year and embark on his third decade in power, said he was honoured to host Pope Francis, describing the pontiff's compassion for the poor and his frankness of spirit as "an encouragement for all of us".

Security has been ratcheted up for the papal visit over fears that Islamist rebels from Al-Qaeda's East Africa branch, the Shebab, could use the opportunity to stage attacks.

But defence chief Katumba Wamala has said measures are in place and expressed confidence that "all will go as planned." Francis has shrugged off safety fears, joking that he was "more worried about the mosquitoes". He travels to war-torn Central African Republic on Sunday (Nov 29), his final destination before returning to Rome.

On the eve of his arrival, Ugandan MPs passed a controversial bill handing the authorities sweeping powers to supervise, approve, inspect and dissolve NGOs in a move that could see rights activists jailed for documenting abuses.

Rights groups say the move is likely to "strangle" criticism of the government.

He also delivered a hard-hitting address on corruption and radicalisation, as well as a stark environmental message, warning it would be "catastrophic" if agreement is not reached at a key UN climate summit which opens in Paris on Monday (Nov 30).