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Pope on first trip to Africa

VATICAN CITY, Mar 17 – Pope Benedict XVI was set Tuesday to leave for a weeklong trip to Africa, his first as pontiff to the world’s poorest continent, with stops in Cameroon and Angola.

Benedict said Sunday he wanted to wrap his arms around the entire continent, with "its painful wounds, its enormous potential and hopes."

He also intends to "confirm the faith of Catholics, encourage Christians in their ecumenical engagement and transmit to all the announcement of peace given to the Church by Christ resurrected," he said during his Sunday Angelus blessing.

The pope’s two destinations were selected for their pan-African and international dimensions, respectively.

The stop in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, where Benedict will stay until Friday, will include a meeting with the representatives of 52 African states preparing a synod on Africa to be held at the Vatican in October on the theme of "The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace."

In Angola , which is still recovering from 27 years of civil war, Benedict will meet with diplomats posted in Luanda and urge the international community not to abandon Africa.

The German pope, who will turn 82 on April 16, will also meet with political leaders in both countries.

He is due to hold open-air masses in Yaounde on Thursday and in Luanda on Sunday.

In Yaounde he will meet with representatives of the Muslim community and associations serving the handicapped, while in Luanda the pope will meet with Catholic women’s groups and lead a youth rally expected to attract thousands.

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The trip will be Benedict’s 11th outside Italy in his four years as the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics and his first to Africa.

Benedict has travelled to the continent only once before, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1987 when he visited the DR Congo (then Zaire).

Africa is the one region in the world where Catholicism enjoys healthy growth.

According to Vatican statistics, the number of African Catholics grew by three percent in 2007 — despite competition from evangelical Protestant denominations and Islam — while populations remained stable elsewhere in the world.

In 2006, baptised Catholics made up 17 percent of the African population, compared with 12 percent in 1978.


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