In November 2015, Pope Francis visited Africa; more specifically, he visited the countries of Uganda, Kenya, and the Central African Republic, which have large Catholic populations (42% of Ugandans, 22% of Kenyans, and 29% of Central Africans are Catholic).
These countries reflect the growing trend in global Catholicism – while it has been declining, remaining steady or growing very slowly in places such as Europe and North America, it has been skyrocketing in places like Africa and Asia. (It has of course been growing steadily in the Latin America-Caribbean region, making up a third of global Catholicism as of 2010.) As of 2015, 16% of people in the sub-Saharan are Catholic, and the number is expected to increase. While other sects of Christianity are also increasing fast, Catholicism is the biggest group of them all.
During his visit to Africa, the Pope spoke about corruption, people who lack education and work, and visited slums; he offered a Mass at a shrine for Anglican and Catholic martyrs, and finally, he visited a war zone.
Pope Francis visited an area known as PK-5, where Muslims and Christians have been fighting for some time. He went to the mosque there, and addressed about 200 Muslims, speaking about the need for peace in the name of God and inter-faith cooperation.
This is important, because not only is the Catholic population in Africa skyrocketing, but the Muslim population is as well. Over the last century, Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa have increased from about 7 million in 1900 to over 222 million. Vocations in Africa are also doing much better than those in the West, resulting in an increase in more African clergy, leading to them being sent out to fill in for the decrease in vocations in regions like Europe and North America. By 2050, according to the World Christian Database, Africa will have over 450 million Catholics, and become the world’s largest Catholic continent.
Over the last century, Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa have increased from 11 million to about 234 million. As of 2010, Africa held about 15% of the total Muslim population. By 2050, there will supposedly be 670 million Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2050, Muslims and Catholics will be the two biggest religions in the world.
Partially, this increase is due to the fact that both Catholics and Muslims in Africa have higher fertility rates and are younger than most other adherents of other religions, in both Africa and elsewhere. Religious switching and migration also play factors. For Catholicism, in addition, its willingness to incorporate traditional African traditions and its key role in things like health care and education also help the increase.
The kinds of Catholicism/Christianity and Islam that are growing in Africa are important too – they tend to be the more conservative, traditional kind. As you might imagine, this can lead to conflicts.
In the Central African Republic, a Muslim rebel coalition overthrew the Christian president, leading to clashes between Muslim and Christian militias. In Kenya, an extremist Islamic group from Somalia, al-Shabab, attacked a shopping mall and later a university, leaving over 200 people dead, most of them Christians. In Nigeria, 70% of which is Catholic, 5,000 Catholics have been killed by Boko Haram, with 100,000 left homeless and over 350 churches destroyed.
In 2010, a median of 23 percent of Muslims and 28 percent of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa saw members of the other religion as hostile to their own religion. A significant portion of people said that they saw religious conflict as a very big problem in their country. And while most sub-Saharan Africans, regardless of their faith, say that democracy is a good thing and that people being able to practice their religion freely is also a good thing, 60% of Christians and 63% of Muslims say that they would like the government to be based on the Bible or sharia law. Religious tension and conflicts are certainly a problem for both the present and the future in sub-Saharan Africa.
But this isn’t just a sub-Saharan African issue, or even just an African issue. It’s a global issue. Remember how, by 2050, Africa will be home to large portions of each religion (in Catholicism’s case, the largest)? Globally, Africa will have a huge influence over each religion in the years to come. And if each religion is the more conservative, traditional kind, which tends to lead to conflicts or hostility, then their effect upon each religion might be negative in a global context. As the number of atheists and unaffiliated decrease globally, the people who are religious increase. Religion – and the divides between them – are likely to play a bigger role in problems and solutions in the future around the world.
But there is hope.
People in Africa have been talking about the Catholic (and Christian)/Muslim divide, and whether there is a way to improve relations. Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, a place that has been a stronghold for the radical Boko Haram, says that the religious divide among among ordinary people is highly overrated, and that the problems that exist (not necessarily caused by religious problems) can be fixed with more democracy. Kukah himself is “one of the most trusted and admired religious leaders in the country,” and promotes as well as exemplifies many interfaith interactions. He represents a growing number of people and organizations dedicated to interfaith cooperation.
Pope Francis, at his speech in the mosque in the Central African Republic, said, “Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God Himself. God is peace. Salaam.”
 Often in surveys, Catholicism is lumped into the grouping of Christianity as a whole, so it can be difficult to find data specific to the religion. But keep in mind that Catholicism is the largest Christian group anywhere, compared to Protestants orOrthodox members, so Catholics are a significant portion of the people answering these surveys, especially in Africa. The same problem applies for Muslims in surveys – Shia and Sunni sects are not taken into account.
 Salaam is the Arabic word for peace.
Title is a reference to Pope Francis’ words, “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” from his speech in Bangui, Central African Republic.