Pope Francis told Christian and Muslim leaders in Kenya on Thursday that they have little choice but to engage in dialogue to guard against the “barbarous” Islamic extremist attacks that have struck Kenya recently, saying religious leaders must be “prophets of peace” in a world sown by hatred.
On his first full day in Africa, Francis insisted that religion can never be used to justify violence and lamented that “all too often, young people are being radicalized in the name of religion to sow discord and fear, and to tear at the very fabric of our societies.”
He said interfaith dialogue isn’t a luxury or optional, but is simply “essential.”
Francis made the comments in a meeting with Kenyan Christian, Muslim and other faith leaders at the start of a busy day that will also see him celebrate Mass on a rain-soaked university campus and deliver a major environment speech to the U.N. regional headquarters in Nairobi. On Friday, he heads to Uganda for the second leg of his first African pilgrimage.
Kenya, a former British colony is majority Christian, but Muslims represent about 10 percent of the population.
In his remarks, Francis referred explicitly to three recent attacks claimed by the Somalia-based al-Shabab extremist group, saying he knew well that the memories were still fresh in Kenya’s mind.
In April, the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack on a mostly Christian college in northeastern Kenya that left some 150 people dead. A month earlier, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for attacks in Mandera county on the Somali border in which 12 people died. In September 2013, at least 67 people were killed in an attack by al-Shabab on the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
Al-Shabab opposes Kenya’s decision to send troops to Somalia to fight the group as part of an African Union force backing Somalia’s weak federal government.
“Here, I think of the importance of our common conviction that the God whom we seek to serve is a God of peace,” Francis said. “How important it is that we be seen as prophets of peace, peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect.”
His comments were echoed by Abdulghafur El-Busaidy, the head of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, an umbrella organization founded in 1973 to unify the East African nation’s Islamic community.
He said Christians and Muslims must work together to accommodate one another, and lead the country. “We should not step back,” he said. “We have to lead, because we are led by the word of God.”