NAIROBI, Kenya — Brushing aside concerns for his security, Pope Francis arrived in Kenya on Wednesday for his first-ever visit to Africa — including to a country torn by sectarian violence.
Francis was received upon arrival at Nairobi's airport by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Nairobi governor Evans Kidero. Kenyan Cardinal Njue and a host of bishops also welcomed the pope amid singing by traditional dance groups.
Francis is also scheduled to visit Uganda and the Central African Republic, which will mark the first time a pope has flown into an active armed conflict. The Central African Republic, or CAR, has been bloodied by a 2-year-old spiral of fighting between Christian and Muslims.
When asked while flying to Kenya in his Alitalia jetliner if he was concerned about security risks, the pope quipped: "I'm more afraid of the mosquitoes."
Large crowds held back by hundreds of police gathered along the road from the airport and cheered as Francis' motorcade passed by.
After greeting Kenyatta, Francis was presented with a bouquet of flowers by a boy and a girl and traditional dancers, some dressed in Maasai regalia, and choirs at the airport sang "karibu baba" in Swahili — lyrics which translate to "welcome father."
Later, Francis was welcomed by an honor guard at the State House and a 21-gun salute.
The pope wants to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to an Africa torn by extremist violence, but security concerns are so high that he might be forced to make changes to his itinerary for the final leg of the trip.
On the eve of the departure, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, insisted that there were no new worrisome threats and that the pope planned to carry on with his scheduled program. But in a sign that the Vatican was on alert, Francis' own chief bodyguard made a last-minute visit to CAR's capital, Bangui, this week to get the latest security updates, and will only meet up with the pope once he lands in Nairobi on Wednesday afternoon.
The bodyguard, Domenico Giani, said upon his departure that "some small modifications" could be made to the itinerary if risks emerged, especially for the civilian population or the U.N. peacekeeping operation.
Before he gets to CAR, Francis is expected to press a host of issues close to his heart in Kenya and Uganda, including poverty, the environment and the need for interfaith dialogue.
He is also likely to challenge the countries' political leaders on corruption. Transparency International ranked Kenya a lowly 145 out of 174 countries in its 2014 corruption perception index, while critics of Ugandan President Yoweri Musevni charge that official corruption has thrived under his three-decade rule.
Francis is likely to raise the issue during his first meeting Wednesday with Kenyatta, who declared this week that corruption is a national security threat to East Africa's largest economy.