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Pope Francis calls on young Ugandans to 'overcome difficulties' with faith

At a rally in Uganda, Pope Francis has urged young people to use faith to change 'the negative into the positive.' Next, the pontiff heads to the Central African Republic, potentially the most dangerous stop on his trip.

Some 150,000 young Ugandans attended a massive pep rally with Pope Francis at a disused airstrip in the capital, Kampala, on Saturday. Crowds shouting "We love you" and "Viva Papa," in the pope's native Spanish, surrounded the popemobile as he arrived at the venue.

The 78-year-old pontiff heard the testimonies of a young woman with HIV who warned against behavior that could spread the virus and a former child soldier who overcame the traumas of captivity and torture to get a university degree.

Francis discarded his prepared speech and said the ability of the two young people to triumph over difficulties showed the power of faith and persistance.

"Overcome difficulties, transform the negative into positive, and pray," Francis told the young crowd.

Tribute to martyrs

Earlier on Saturday, Francis celebrated mass and

paid tribute to Ugandan Christians

who were executed in the 19th century for refusing to renounce their faith. Around 300,000 people attended the mass in Namugongo, east of Kampala, where 45 Anglican and Catholic martyrs were killed between 1884 and 1887 on the orders of a local king.

"Today, we recall with gratitude the sacrifice of the Uganda martyrs," Francis told the faithful, adding that they should follow the martyrs' example of faith to be missionaries at home by taking care of "the elderly, the poor, the widowed and the abandoned."

President Yoweri Museveni, South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir and the descendant of the king who ordered the deaths were also present at the service.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis arrives at the Catholic martyrs' shrine in Namugongo to lead a mass before thousands of followers

Homosexuality taboo

Despite the church's traditional disapproval of homosexuality, Ugandan LGBT activists were hoping the pope would speak out in defense of their rights. Homosexuality remains illegal in many countries in Africa, including Kenya and Uganda, where tough anti-gay legislation has drawn international criticism.

The pope was expected to raise human rights issues, and "we expect him to talk about sexual minority rights in terms of harassment," gay activist Moses Kimbugwe said.

The Vatican has refused to say whether Francis will discuss gay rights openly during his six-day trip to Africa which kicked off in Kenya on Wednesday. Africa is home to an estimated 180 million Catholics, and their numbers are growing faster than anywhere else in the world. Uganda itself is 47 percent Catholic.

Next stop: CAR

On Sunday, Pope Francis

is to travel on to the Central African Republic

(CAR), a country that has been embroiled in an inter-religious conflict that has left thousands of people dead. On the third and last leg of his trip, the pontiff is expected to focus more on geopolitical concerns and push for peace and reconciliation.

His visit has been welcomed by both the majority Christian community and the Muslim minority. Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza said on Saturday that the event could mark a turning point in the fighting, which has pitted neighbor against neighbor.

"Central Africans know that the pope is a messenger of peace, and they hope that the message he is going to deliver to them will trigger a national awakening and awareness so that Central Africans learn to live together once again," she said.

nm/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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