- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI meets Thursday with representatives of Cameroon’s sizable Muslim minority before celebrating Mass for thousands of African Catholics in the capital’s soccer stadium.

Benedict’s open-air Mass in the stadium that can hold 40,000 people will be his first as pope on the African continent, which is witnessing the church’s biggest growth.

The morning meeting with Muslim representatives at the Apostolic Nunciature, where Benedict has been lodging on his first African pilgrimage as pope, is closed to the public. The pope was expected to greet the participants with a brief speech.

Muslims make up some 22 percent of Cameroon’s population and Roman Catholics account for 27 percent of the West African nation’s people. The rest of the population is mostly made up of animists (27 percent) and Protestants (18 percent).

Christians and Muslims largely coexist without problems in Cameroon.

Benedict, as did his predecessor John Paul II, has set aside time in his various foreign pilgrimages to meet with, or at least greet, representatives from various Christian communities as well as non-Christians.

The pope’s homily was expected to touch on African issues. Ahead of the visit, Benedict said he was traveling in Africa as a pilgrimage of peace, in hopes of inspiring faithful to work for social justice and fight the hunger and disease which affliction millions on the continent.

Since stepping off the papal plane on Tuesday, attention to Benedict’s pilgrimage has been largely focused on the Vatican’s refusal to advocate condoms as a way to help stop the spread of AIDS, which is pandemic in Africa.

On Wednesday, France and Germany sharply criticized Benedict’s declaration aboard the papal plane that distributing condoms “increases” the AIDS problem. The French foreign ministry said the statement could “endanger public health policies and the imperative to protect human life.”

Two German ministers said on Benedict’s first full day as pope in Africa, a continent ravaged by HIV, that it was irresponsible to reject condoms. The U.N. agency charged with fighting AIDS also spoke out in favor of condom use.

Benedict told reporters on his flight Tuesday to Cameroon that a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease, not the distribution of condoms.

Also on Wednesday, Benedict met with Cameroon President Paul Biya, one of Africa’s longest-ruling strongmen. Biya has been in power since 1982 and recently was accused by Amnesty International of seeking to crush political opposition.

No details of the meeting at the presidential palace were given. Local churchmen have spoken out against human rights abuses and the newspaper Le Jour carried a front-page interview with Cameroon Cardinal Christian Tumi asking Biya not to run again in 2011.

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