Pope Benedict XVI brings message of hope for Africa – the continent of religions


Pope Benedict XVI brings a message of hope to Africa when he begins a three-day visit to Benin on Friday to meet Catholic leaders and pilgrims from across the continent.

The highlight of the pope’s second trip to a region that has the world’s fastest growing number of Catholics will be the formal signing on Saturday of an apostolic exhortation entitled “The Pledge for Africa.”

The main message of the exhortation – “Africae Munus” in the Vatican’s official language, Latin -- will be peace, reconciliation and justice.

The document -- a summary of the conclusions of the synod of African bishops in 2009 -- is also expected to refer to the problems of unequal development, corruption, rural poverty and the rise of an alternative Christian movement.

The pope is set to sign the proclamation in West Africa’s biggest cathedral in Ouidah, a coastal town that was once a hub for the slave trade and where the first missionaries arrived 150 years ago.

“Benedict XVI will bring a message of encouragement and hope, though very conscious of the problems that exist,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said, outlining a packed agenda for the ageing pontiff.

The German pope will also meet traditional religious leaders, including Vodun -- or Voodoo -- chiefs, on Saturday in Benin’s commercial capital Cotonou, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Ouidah.

Benin is a major center of Vodun -- around 17 percent of the population practice it -- and the cathedral in Ouidah is next to a python temple.

The pope’s three-day visit to Benin will take him to a region which contains one in five of the world’s Christians and one in seven Muslims.

The number of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa has grown immensely from 11 million in 1900 to 234 million in 2010 while the Christian community south of the Sahara has multiplied by 20 over the same period.

By 2010, 470 million people in the region were Christians, including Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodoxes, Protestants, Pentecosts and Evangelists.

“The two religions are balanced” with between 400 million and 500 million Christians and the same number of Muslims in Africa as a whole, including North Africa, according to a study by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center.

On Saturday the pope will meet leprosy sufferers and abandoned children, and on Sunday he will celebrate mass in an open-air stadium in Cotonou with some 200 African bishops from 35 countries.

Following his arrival on Friday and while the 84-year-old pope is resting from his flight, singers like Congo’s Papa Wemba will give a concert in the city.

The Congolese rumba star will be joined on stage by Angola’s Bonga and Guinea’s Fifito. The three are releasing an album to mark the visit entitled “Africa Tenda Amani!” -- or “Africa Make Peace!” in Swahili.

Benedict’s first visit to Africa in 2009 was overshadowed by a controversy over his statement that the distribution of condoms “aggravates” the AIDS crisis and spoke of sexual abstinence as the only solution.

The pope visited Angola and Cameroon during that six-day tour.

Mario Giro, a leader of the Sant’Egidio community -- a Catholic group active in peace-building initiatives in Africa, said the pope discovered “a living faith” in the continent’s rapidly-changing societies.

Benedict “wants to encourage the faith of Africans,” he said.

The welcome from Benin’s Catholics -- who number around three million, or 34 percent of the population -- is expected to be effusive and they will be joined by many thousands of pilgrims from neighboring countries.

Around 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live in Africa and, while the pope has tended to concentrate his message on one of spiritual revival in the secular West, he has kept tabs on Africa too.

He has issued multiple calls in recent months for increased relief to famine-stricken Somalia. He has also tracked the situation in Ivory Coast -- where a contested presidential poll triggered a civil war this year.

A Beninese observer told AFP on condition of anonymity that local Catholic authorities are hoping the pope will “put the house in order.”

Two bishops, including the former archbishop of Cotonou, Marcel Honorat Agboton, have been forced to resign recently over different scandals, ranging from sex to corruption and occult practices.

Agboton tried to commit suicide by poisoning himself and now lives in Europe.

There have also been several child abuse scandals -- an affliction that has thrown the Catholic Church worldwide into a profound crisis.

Catholicism is particularly important in Benin as it was a Catholic elite trained by missionaries that helped ensure a democratic transition after the fall of the military dictatorship at the beginning of the 1990s.

Like in other parts of Africa however, the Catholic Church is increasingly facing competition from the growing influence of Islam and a multiplication of Pentecostal churches that often offer a simpler faith.

“People are disappointed. They listen to the first person who comes,” said a Vatican source, adding however that they often “return” to Catholicism.

But the source said Catholics should not become obsessed with institutions and should instead seek to promote an identity of “the family of God” beyond ethnic borders.

The African Church “should take into account the positive support of traditional religions while rejecting witchcraft,” he said.

Benedict will be following in the footsteps of his predecessor John Paul II, who visited Benin twice -- in 1982 and 1993.

The globe-trotting John Paul visited 41 countries in Africa.

The first pope to visit Africa was Paul VI, who went to the sanctuary of Namugongo in Uganda in 1969, where 26 Catholics were martyred at the end of the 19th century and were later canonized as Africa’s first saints.

African faithful tend to be relatively moderate and tolerant of each other regardless of their religion, with “neither Christianity nor Islam progressing at the expense of the other,” according to the Pew study.

Over a quarter of the population of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa also engage in traditional spiritual practices and many are in favor of their leaders openly expressing religious beliefs.

Northern Africa is overwhelmingly Muslim and the south is largely Christian, creating an area of conflict where the two religions meet, which stretches from Somalia, through Nigeria to Senegal.