Kampala (AFP) - Large crowds of Ugandans greeted Pope Francis on Saturday as he held a mass youth rally and honoured martyred Christians on his landmark trip to Africa, which he dubbed "the continent of hope".
The 78-year-old pontiff was greeted by wild cheers and singing at a shrine to the martyrs at Namugongo, just outside the capital Kampala, that honours more than 40 Christians who were executed in the 19th century for refusing to recant their faith.
"Pope Francis we love you!", young Christians chanted at a youth rally at the Kololo grounds in Kampala, as thousands danced to pumping music, cheering as the pontiff leaned out of the popemobile to kiss babies.
Over 100,000 people had waited from before dawn at the open-air shrine to attend the mass, a highlight of his visit to Uganda, the second leg of his trip after Kenya, and before travelling to war-torn Central African Republic (CAR) on Sunday.
A total of 45 Catholics and Protestants, many of them youngsters working as royal pages, were executed by King Mwanga of Buganda -- a 19th century kingdom that was located in the south of present-day Uganda -- between 1885 and 1887.
At issue was their refusal to comply with the king's sexual advances towards them and other young boys in the court.
"Today, we recall with gratitude the sacrifice of the Uganda martyrs," Francis said at the Namugongo shrine where 26 of them were burned alive on June 3, 1886.
"Not only were their lives threatened but so too were the lives of the younger boys under their care," he said. "They were fearless in bringing Christ to others, even at the cost of their lives."
- Gay rights in focus -
Catholic faithful from neighbouring war-torn South Sudan were also among the worshippers, having travelled 12 hours by bus to catch a glimpse of the Argentine pope, who has made humility and help for the poor a hallmark of his tenure.
Fighting poverty has been a key theme of his visit but some of the faithful were hoping to hear the pontiff's thoughts on other issues such as gay rights.
"The challenges we have in Uganda are early pregnancies, drug abuse and homosexuality," said 18-year old schoolgirl Joyce Adong, dressed in her uniform and carrying rosary beads.
Homosexuality remains illegal in many countries in Africa, including Kenya and Uganda, where lawmakers passed tough anti-homosexuality legislation in 2013 that was later overturned on a technicality.
Ugandan gay rights activists had asked to meet the pope, who has said gay people should not be marginalised, but it was not clear if the meeting took place.
Among the visitors from South Sudan was President Salva Kiir who held a brief private meeting with the pope, according to a South Sudanese government official who gave no further details.
"If there's one country he should visit, it's South Sudan," said 37-year-old Anthony Beda from South Sudan, wearing a pope badge and waving a flag with the pontiff's face on it.
"I want to hear his powerful words of unity and compassion," Beda told AFP, saying it could help stop the civil war there. "I would love him to go... It would be a blessing."
In the midst of the crowds in Kampala, a policewoman went into labour, giving birth to a baby girl that she named Franchesca -- the female version of Francis, Uganda's New Vision newspaper reported.
- Arrests in Kenya -
Francis, who railed against corruption and wealthy minorities who hoard resources at the expense of the poor during his three days in Kenya, struck a more optimistic tone since arriving in neighbouring Uganda late Friday.
"The world looks to Africa as the continent of hope," he said in his opening speech, hailing Uganda's outstanding response in accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring war-torn states.
Despite fears that Islamist rebels from Al-Qaeda's East Africa branch, the Shebab, could use the opportunity to stage attacks, the visit has so far been peaceful, although police in Kenya on Saturday confirmed they had arrested two Kenyan men with links to an alleged Iranian spy ring which was planning a series of attacks.
Kenyan police also issued a public appeal for information about a wanted British national believed to have "sneaked into the country" who is believed to be a Shebab militant.