VATICAN CITY, Mar 15 – Pope Benedict XVI heads Tuesday to Cameroon and Angola on a mission to foster hope and reconciliation on a continent torn by conflict.,
Leaving behind him a crisis atmosphere at the Vatican surrounding the controversial lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Benedict will be making his first trip as pontiff to 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.
"The (pope’s) first trip to Africa is a trip of hope and overall reconciliation," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told a press briefing last week.
In 2006, baptised Catholics made up 17 percent of the African population, compared with 12 percent in 1978. They coexist peacefully in some communities while conflicting elsewhere with Muslims, Christians of other denominations, notably Pentecostals, or adherents of traditional religions.
In French- and English-speaking Cameroon, relations between Muslims and Christians are good, while three in five people in Portuguese-speaking Angola, the first African country to be evangelised, are Roman Catholic.
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."
A working document on the planned synod published in 2006 stressed the need for Africans to "assume their own responsibilities" in the continent’s destiny without expecting all solutions to come from the West.
An African synod held in April 1994 coincided with the genocide in Rwanda, a tragedy that has haunted the Church ever since because of the controversial role of the local clergy, members of which were accused of abetting the slaughter if not taking part in it.
The world’s poorest continent today is torn by other conflicts, notably in Sudan’s western Darfur state, often cited by the pope in his public speeches and prayers, as well as in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ivory Coast and elsewhere.
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 March 22.
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.
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 DRC (then Zaire).
His globe-trotting predecessor John Paul II made 16 trips to the continent, visiting 42 countries, during his papacy of nearly three decades.