Africa's missing pope: Visit us, region tells Francis in new popularity survey

While opinion of pontiff in the region remains favourable, but many say they just do not know him.

THE message to relatively-new Pope Francis from Africa is clear: travel to the continent. A new survey shows that while 44% in Africa say they love the pontiff, a significant 40% offered no rating, mostly because they haven’t seen enough of him in their neighbourhood yet.

To interprete this as a snub to one of the most popular popes in recent times would be wrong—Africa is one of the most conservative regions out there and seen the biggest growth in Catholics globally, nearly three times over the last 30 years to nearly 200 million today. It is more a sense that much of the continent is simply not familiar with him.

Francis, 77, is yet to travel to Africa, almost two years since he begun his papacy, although in fairness he does not travel much, having been to only seven countries so far. His predecessor, the indefatigable John Paul II in his first 21 months visited 15 countries, six of them in Africa.   

But Francis is popular in African countries that have large Catholic populations, with Pew Research Centre researchers  polling three east African countries which have a rough split with Protestants to get a better picture.

 Uganda and Tanzania each gave the pontiff a 70% favourable rating, while some 56% of Kenyans also liked what they have seen so far of the pope, although it would be difficult to disaggregate this from general support for the church.

On the other side were countries surveyed that do not have a Catholic majority. Of there 44% of Nigerians gave Francis a favourable rating, 43% in Ghana, Senegal, 39%, and 34% in South Africa. The survey notes that non-Catholics generally offered no rating, as opposed to saying they do not like him.

The continent has nearly 200 million Catholics, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa.

Globally the pope, who leads nearly 1.1 billion Catholics, enjoys wide support, with a median of 60% across 43 countries polled plumping for him. Last year TIME magazine named him its Person of the Year for changing the tone for the papacy, including through his “masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1st century office.”

His strongest numbers come from Europe, where a median 84% have a favourable rating, despite being the first non-European pontiff in more than 1,200 years. Facebook data also showed that he was the most talked about person in 2013.

His home region of Latin America, as expected, gives him a 72% favourable rating, with his home country of Argentina the highest with a 91% favourable opinion. Some 65% of Argentines said their opinion of him was “very” favourable. 

Most Protestant African nations (%) |Create infographics

Some 78% of Americans hold a favourable opinion of Francis, the second highest region after Europe, while 10% say they have no rating—a broad category that includes  “don’t know”, “can’t rate” and “never heard of”. 

Asians are also as unfamiliar with Francis as Africa, with 41% saying they have a favourable rating, and 45% holding no opinion. The Middle East is most unfavourable, with 25% saying they do not like him, while 41% had no rating. Another 25% said they were of favourable opinion. 

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