Monday, March 23, 2009

Pope ends Africa trip after call to fight poverty

24 March 2009

VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI returned on Monday to the Vatican after his first visit to Africa as pontiff with the row over his remarks about condoms "aggravating the spread of AIDS" continuing to rumble.

The Italian Church lashed out on Monday at what it called "mockery" of the pope for rejecting condoms as a weapon against AIDS, comments that overshadowed his visit.

"We will not accept the pope being made the object of mockery and offence, in the media or elsewhere," said Angelo Bagnasco, Italy's senior bishop.

"He represents for everyone a moral authority, which this journey has made people appreciate even more," he said, complaining of "heavy criticism of our beloved pope, which goes on longer than it should".

Demonstrators carrying condoms greeted the pope on his return from his visit to Cameroon and Angola.

After arriving back at an airport near Rome he was flown by helicopter to the Vatican. In St. Peter's Square about 50 demonstrators armed with condoms and candles in memory of people who died of AIDS waved placards backing the use of contraceptives.

Before leaving Africa Benedict made a new call for the continent to confront poverty as he ended a tour marred both by the condoms controversy and two stampede deaths.

The pope made repeated calls for African leaders to battle corruption, fight poverty and quell conflicts - a theme he again touched on in his final remarks at the Luanda airport.

"If I may be permitted to make one last appeal, I would ask that the just realisation of the fundamental aspirations of the most needy peoples should be the principal concern of those in public office," he said, with Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos nearby.

"Their intention - I am sure - is to carry out the mission they have received not for themselves but for the sake of the common good," he said.

Angolans lined the streets to wave goodbye to the head of the Roman Catholic Church as his pope-mobile drove to the airport.

Benedict XVI later said he was impressed by the "almost exuberantly cordial nature of African joy".

On the plane home, he added that he was "praying and praying again" for two young Angolan women who died in a stampede during his visit to see some of the south African country's youths on Saturday.

"Let us hope that in future, things will be better organised so this never happens again," the pope said on the plane, recalling that Vatican secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone had met the mother of one of the victims, "a courageous woman and mother of five".

The papal trip drew enormous support in a country that is 55 percent Catholic. Hundreds of thousands braved scorching tropical heat for an open-air Mass on Sunday.

In Angola, he twice condemned corruption while standing beside Dos Santos, who has ruled for 30 years and whose government is ranked by Transparency International as among the world's most graft-ridden.

Dos Santos thanked the pope for his words, but offered little more - despite hopes among local Church leaders that the papal visit would push the government to grant a national broadcast license to Luanda's Radio Ecclesia, one of Angola's few independent media.

Since the end of 2002 after decades of civil war, Angola's oil and diamond riches have made its economy one of the fastest-growing in the world.

That wealth has yet to reach the majority of people in a nation where two-thirds of the population live on less than two dollars a day, and where one in four children dies before their fifth birthday.

In the biggest event of his African tour, the pope on Sunday spoke of "clouds of evil" that linger over Africa and denounced "the evil of war, the murderous fruits of tribalism and ethnic rivalry.

"It is to preach this message of forgiveness, hope and new life in Christ that I have come to Africa," he added.