Friday, March 20, 2009

LUANDA, ANGOLA (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI urged Angolans on Friday to continue on the path of reconciliation after nearly three decades of civil war, saying dialogue could overcome all conflict and tension.

Benedict made the appeal as he arrived to an exuberant welcome in the Angolan capital of Luanda on the second leg of his African tour. Tens of thousands of Angolans lined his motorcade route to welcome him, honking car horns and slowing traffic to a crawl.

“I have come to see our papa because he is good for the church and the church is good to us,” said Fatima de Castro, a 52-year-old housekeeper who traveled for 14 hours through the night to welcome the pope outside Luanda’s airport.

Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos greeted the 81-year-old Benedict as he descended from his chartered plane onto a red carpet in sweltering heat that reddened his face.

In his remarks at the airport, Benedict referred to his own childhood growing up in Nazi Germany, saying he had known war and national divisions “as a result of inhuman and destructive ideologies, which, under the false appearance of dreams and illusions, caused the yoke of oppression to weigh down upon the people.”

“You can therefore understand how keenly aware I am of dialogue as a way of overcoming every form of conflict and tension and making every nation, including your own, into a house of peace and fraternity,” he said.

Later, in remarks to government leaders and foreign diplomats, Benedict condemned the “unspeakable” sexual violence against women in Africa, and chided those African countries that have approved abortion. Angola is one of 45 signatories of an African Union protocol that says abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is endangered.

Angola was lacerated by a civil war that started with its 1975 independence and ended in 2002. Its history as a former Portuguese colony has given the country Christian roots and today about 8.6 million people, or more than 60 percent of the population, are Catholic.

Many of the faithful were out in force Friday to welcome the pope. The throngs blocked roads leading away from Luanda’s airport and jogged alongside the papal motorcade; many people wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the pope’s picture with “Welcome to our land” written in Portuguese.

“Christianity is not only a religion but a composite part of the Angolan identity,” said Nelson Pestana, a political scientist who lectures at the Catholic University of Angola.

Benedict arrived in Angola from Cameroon, where his visit was capped Friday morning by a meeting with about 15 pygmies who presented him with a turtle. Vatican officials showed off the turtle in his wooden cage to reporters traveling in the papal plane and said the animal would be taken back with the pontiff to Vatican City.

Dos Santos’ party swept elections last year that critics say were marred by fraud and corruption. The victory has silenced many dissenting voices, including those of the church, Pestana said, adding that the pope should be careful that his visit this week does not appear to legitimize dos Santos’ 30-year rule.

“The pope, who has great authority to speak, would influence the powers that be in Angola by drawing greater attention to the poor,” he said. “But the regime wants a sort of papal benediction, so that its authoritarianism will not be seen as an absolute dictatorship but a symbolic enthronement as a divinely inspired power.”

In his welcome speech, Benedict did, indeed, refer to Angola’s poverty as well as its rich natural resources, saying the “multitude” of poor Angolans must not be forgotten.

“This is a huge task, requiring greater civic participation on everyone’s part,” Benedict said.

Angola is rich in diamonds and oil, but war and mismanagement have left most Angolans in poverty. Pestana says some of the country’s bishops have spoken out in courageous pastoral letters condemning the use of multibillion-dollar oil revenues for personal enrichment while citizens remain poor.

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