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Pope urges Kenyans to work for "reconciliation and peace"

NAIROBI, Kenya - It was the ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder who coined the now famous phrase -- "There is always something new out of Africa."

Pope Francis' six-day, three-nation tour is meant to turn that on its head by carrying a message of hope and reconciliation to a continent which has been bringing new levels of ferocity to ethnic hatred.

He set the tone in his first speech shortly after a colorful welcome by praise singers.

"To the extent that our societies experience divisions, whether ethnic, religious or economic, all men and women of goodwill are called to work for reconciliation and peace, forgiveness and healing," the pope said.

Pope Francis' security increases ahead of Africa trip

In his speech at State House, official residence of Kenya's Catholic President Uhuru Kenyatta, the pope also touched on his signature theme of the environment.

"The grave environmental crisis facing our world demands an ever greater sensitivity to the relationship between human beings and nature," he said. "We have a responsibility to pass on the beauty of nature in its integrity to the future generations."

But it is ethnic and religious differences that will take the spotlight.

Pope Francis smiles as he walks next to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, in Nairobi, Kenya, Nov. 25, 2015.
Pope Francis smiles as he walks next to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, in Nairobi, Kenya, Nov. 25, 2015. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

The Catholic Church is expanding fast in Africa, with the number of adherents predicted to double to more than half a billion in 2050.

Islam is also on the rise in the continent, and is expected to reach 670 million faithful at the same time.

Clashes are inevitable.

Kenya has seen violent attacks on Christian targets by the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabab Islamists from neighboring Somalia.

Uganda, his second stop, has also been hit.

And the pope is scheduled to step into the lion's den on his last stop, the basically government-less Central African Republic, where an ongoing civil war between Muslims and Christians has brought suggestions that his time there might be seriously curtailed.

Pope arrives in Kenya to start first-ever trip to Africa

That, of course, is subject to papal agreement, and Francis seems anything but fazed by the incipient dangers of this trip.

He will use open pope mobiles, and Vatican officials have treated questions as to whether or not he will war any kind of body armor as so preposterous as to seem amusing.

As for the pope, after takeoff from Rome, as always, he came to the Press section in the back and warmly shook the hand of all seventy-four journalists on board.

And he always has time for a question, so I mentioned that many people were nervous about his trip, and asked if he was.

"The only thing I'm worried about," he said with a beaming smile, "is mosquitoes."

As someone who has caught malaria twice over years of covering Africa, I said I was too.

That got an even bigger smile, and a hearty; "Did you bring your spray?"

Francis didn't have to - one of the journalists gave him two cans as a present.