(Reuters) – From the dusty southern reaches of the Sahara to the lush uplands of central Angola, the Roman Catholic church is on the move in Africa, a continent that may be home to as many as half a billion Catholics by the middle of the century.

Since 1980, the number of Catholics in Africa has risen more than three-fold – to nearly 200 million by 2012 – according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a unit affiliated with Washington’s Georgetown University.

Its success is not purely a function of Africa’s high birth rates and gradually increasing life expectancy.

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A woman stands in front of posters of Pope Francis at the Martyrs of Uganda church in Bamako, Mali, November 8, 2015. The poster on the right reads, “Our Pope Francis”. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Joe Penney
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Father Michael Owusu-Ofori gives communion to members of the congregation during Thursday evening mass at St. Kizito Catholic Parish in Accra, Ghana, November 4, 2015. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

CARA estimates that over that same period, the proportion of Catholics in Africa’s population rose to 18.6 percent from 12.5 percent.

It is with such numbers in mind that Pope Francis makes his first papal visit to the continent this month, stopping off in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic, a deeply impoverished country where dozens of people have been killed in clashes this year between Christians and Muslims.

However, numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

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A man prays after mass at the Martyrs of Uganda church in Bamako, Mali, November 8, 2015. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Joe PenneyPICTURE 3 OF 13 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY “CATHOLICISM IN AFRICA”. SEARCH “PONTIFF EVANGELICAL” FOR ALL IMAGES
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Angola’s historic Church of Our Lady of Conception, also known as the Sanctuary of Mama Muxima, sits on the banks of the Kwanza river, in Muxima November 8, 2015. The building was erected by the Portuguese in the first century of their colonial rule in Angola. The town played an important role in the slave trade where slaves were baptised in the area before being transported. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Herculano Corarado EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.PICTURE 13 OF 13 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY “CATHOLICISM IN AFRICA”. SEARCH “PONTIFF EVANGELICAL” FOR ALL IMAGES
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Rosary beads left by worshippers lie on the ground at the highest point of the Sanctuary of Muxima, in Muxima, south of Angola’s capital, Luanda November 8, 2015. The town was built by the Portuguese in the first century of their colonial rule in Angola. Situated on the banks of the Kwanza River, the town played an important role in the slave trade, with slaves baptised in the area before being transported. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Herculano Corarado
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A woman walks past a section of Mogadishu Cathedral that was built by Italian authorities, in Mogadishu, Somalia, November 3, 2015. The church was attacked during the 1989 civil war that saw its last Bishop, Salvatore Colombo, killed by armed insurgents while giving mass in the cathedral. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Feisal OmarPICTURE 12 OF 13 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY “CATHOLICISM IN AFRICA”. SEARCH “PONTIFF EVANGELICAL” FOR ALL IMAGES
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Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga (C), stands next to followers after conducting Sunday mass in a temporary church at a camp for internally displaced people near Bangui airport in the Central African Republic, October 11, 2015. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
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A woman dances and sings at the beginning of Sunday mass conducted by the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, near a temporary church at a camp for internally displaced people in the Central African Republic, October 11, 2015. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
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A priest and altar boys arrive to celebrate Catholic mass on Sunday, with a cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis to the right, inside the Holy Family Minor Basilica parish, the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, November 8, 2015. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

In cities, towns and villages across sub-Saharan Africa, where worshippers gather in venues as diverse as an ornate cathedral in Nairobi to a roadside cross on the outskirts of Kampala, the Catholic church is facing serious competition.

Besides Islam – now the religion of almost one in three Africans – it is coming up against a host of Pentecostalist and evangelical churches fitting into Africans’ love of music, dance and free-form self-expression.

In many instances, the relatively staid and rigid nature of established Christian churches, both Roman Catholic and Anglican, are of limited appeal to Africa’s overwhelmingly young church-going population, experts say.

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A young Christian man sits in front of Saint Joseph Cathedral during Sunday mass in Bambari, Central African Republic, October 18, 2015. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
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A woman prays in the annex of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Bamako, Mali, November 6, 2015. Catholics prayed daily in the main cathedral until a year ago, when security threats forced them to pray in the annex. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Joe Penney
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Worshippers stand outside the historic Church of Our Lady of Conception, also known as the Sanctuary of Mama Muxima, in Muxima, south of Angola’s capital, Luanda, November 8, 2015. The building was erected by the Portuguese in the first century of their colonial rule in Angola. Situated on the banks of the Kwanza River, the town played an important role in the slave trade, with slaves baptised in the area before being transported. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/Herculano

 

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Catholic faithful pray in front of a cross of Jesus Christ erected by a roadside in Kakoge, north of Uganda’s capital Kampala, October 18, 2015. Pope Francis makes his first pontifical visit later this month to Africa, where Catholicism has grown rapidly over the last few decades but now faces serious competition from Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, as well as Islam. The pontiff’s trip to Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people is Catholic, takes in Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. His visit to that country is fraught with security concerns after months of clashes between Christians and Muslim gangs in which dozens of people have been killed. REUTERS/James Akena

“These (evangelical) churches are quite good at tapping into traditional African sensitivities of giving expression to whatever you feel in a very bubbly manner,” said Christo Lombaard, a professor of Christian spirituality at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.

“They’re not like these very staid churches that I grew up with.”

(Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)