- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

LUANDA, Angola _ Tens of thousands of Angola’s Catholics lined the streets of the capital on Saturday for a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI, who urged the country’s faithful to reach out and convert people who believe in witchcraft.

“In today’s Angola,” he said at Mass in the capital, “Catholics should offer the message of Christ to the many who live in the fear of spirits, of evil powers by whom they feel threatened.”

He also gave a message of hope to young people, including some wounded and maimed during Angola’s long civil war, when he addressed a crowd of some 30,000 people at drum concert later.

“I think of the many tears you shed for the loss of relatives,” he told the crowd at a soccer stadium where he watched a drum concert by young men with the painted faces, and dancers in colorful costumes. The civil war started with Angola’s 1975 independence from Portugal and ended in 2002.

The 81-year-old pontiff, wearing white robes, looked tired and moved slowly in the tropical heat during the youth appearance in late afternoon.

In the morning, Benedict attracted thousands onto the streets every time his motorcade passed and delighted the crowds by speaking in Portuguese.

Drawing on the more than 500 years of Roman Catholicism in Angola, he called Christianity a bridge between the local peoples and the Portuguese settlers. The country’s history as a Portuguese colony gave the country Christian roots. Eighty percent of the 16 million people are Christian, about 65 percent Catholic.

The pope began his day addressing Catholic clergymen and nuns, telling them to be missionaries to those Angolans “living in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers. In their bewilderment they end up even condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers.”

In Africa, some churchgoing Catholics also follow traditional animist religions and consult medicine men and diviners who are denounced by the church. People accused of sorcery or of being possessed by evil powers sometimes are killed by fearful mobs.

Local media have reported that police last year rescued 40 children who had been held by two religious sects after being accused by their own families of witchcraft.

Benedict counseled Catholics to “live peacefully” with animists and other nonbelievers and urged Angolans to be the “new missionaries” to bring people who believe in sorcery to Christ.

Benedict spoke at a Mass at the capital’s blue-domed St. Paul’s Church, where light streamed through stained glass windows onto veiled nuns and priests and bishops resplendent in white and lilac robes.

The pope lovingly caressed the faces of children and sketched the cross on their foreheads.

Security was unusually tight, with military sharpshooters atop buildings in the capital. The National Police said they have deployed 10,000 officers. Security agents blocked cell phones in the church, apparently by sending a signal.

“This is a very emotional day for me, my first time to get a Papal blessing,” said Sister Iliria Olivera, from Oaxaca in Mexico, among hundreds of foreign missionaries in the church. Olivera for nine years has been working with her Sisters of the Divine Pastor, teaching children and running a maternal health clinic outside Luanda.

On Friday, Benedict lamented what he called strains on the traditional African family, condemning sexual violence against women and chiding countries that have approved abortion.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, who is traveling with the pope, told journalists at a briefing Saturday that Benedict in that speech was referring to abortion when used as a means of “population control.”

Earlier in the weeklong trip, the pope’s first to Africa, Benedict drew criticism from aid agencies and some European governments when he said that condoms were not the answer to Africa’s severe AIDS epidemic, suggesting that sexual behavior was the issue.

Among the young people in the stadium Saturday was Valdomero Dias, who said he understood the pope’s message as leader of the church. “But abstinence is very difficult for young people,” said Dias, a 27-year-old bachelor who helps run the scouting movement.

Amnesty International on Saturday called on the pope to use his influence to halt the threat of forced evictions for residents of Luanda to make rise for high-rise apartments and office buildings. Many have been given cheap houses in faraway satellite towns that have no running water or electricity.

Amnesty said that between 2003 and 2006, thousands of people were forcibly evicted from land belonging to the Catholic Church in three Luanda districts.

Asked at the press briefing about Amnesty’s allegations, Lombardi referred the question to an Angolan bishop, Monsignor Jose Manuel Imbamba. The prelate denied that anyone had been evicted or houses destroyed. “We help the poor, we don’t send them away,” Imbamba said.


AP correspondent Michelle Faul and reporter Casimiro Siona contributed to this report.

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