Saturday, March 21, 2009

Amnesty International called on the pope to use his influence to halt the threat of forced evictions

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

But a stampede at a stadium before one of the pope's speeches left two people dead and others injured.

"The pope is very upset," a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said late Saturday.

The stampede broke out as the gates to Coqueiros stadium opened hours before Benedict arrived, Lombardi said.

Portuguese news agency LUSA cited an unidentified source at a local hospital as saying a man and a woman were killed, eight others were hospitalized with minor injuries, and 10 were given medical assistance at the site.

An AP reporter saw another stampede break out when the pope arrived, and at least 20 people were taken away in ambulances.

The 81-year-old pontiff, wearing white robes, looked tired and moved slowly in the tropical heat during the stadium appearance before some 30,000 people in late afternoon. He gave a message of hope to young people, including some wounded and maimed during Angola's long civil war that started with Angola's 1975 independence from Portugal and ended in 2002.

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. Eighty percent of the 16 million people are Christian, about 65 percent Catholic.

Benedict 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.

Security was unusually tight, with military sharpshooters atop buildings in the capital. The National Police said they have deployed 10,000 officers.

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.

Lombardi 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 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.