Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pope speaks out against sexual violence

  • Victor L. Simpson
  • March 21, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI, welcomed to Angola by the biggest crowds of his African pilgrimage, has condemned sexual violence against women in Africa and chided those countries on the continent that have approved abortion.

Benedict arrived in the capital Luanda on Friday on the second leg of his African tour, with tens of thousands pouring into the streets along his motorcade route, honking car horns and slowing traffic to a crawl.

Many of the faithful wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the Pope's picture and "Welcome to our land" written in Portuguese.

Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos greeted the 81-year-old pontiff as he descended from his chartered plane onto a red carpet under a tropical sun.

This former Portuguese colony is mainly Catholic and the Pope lamented what he called strains on the traditional African family.

"Particularly disturbing is the crushing yoke of discrimination that women and girls so often endure, not to mention the unspeakable practice of sexual violence and exploitation which causes such humiliation and trauma," he told an audience of government leaders and foreign diplomats.

He also criticised what he called the "irony of those who promote abortion as a form of 'maternal' healthcare".

The Pope was referring to an African Union agreement signed by Angola and 44 other countries that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is endangered.

"How disconcerting the claim that the termination of life is a matter of reproductive health," Benedict said.

Angolans traditionally have large families — the President has nine children — but many say the high cost of living in this oil-rich country makes them want to have fewer children than previous generations.

Earlier in the week-long trip, Benedict drew criticism from aid agencies and some European governments when he said that condoms were not the answer to Africa's AIDS epidemic, suggesting that sexual behaviour was the issue. Igor Rivas, a 25-year-old student of economics, was in the crowd of thousands.

"I want the benediction of the Pope. I know I am a sinner. I fight to abstain from sex," Mr Rivas said.

In his remarks to diplomats, Benedict also called for a "conversion of hearts" to rid Angola and the rest of Africa of corruption.

The Pope arrived in Angola from Cameroon, where his visit was capped on Friday morning by a meeting with about 15 pygmies who performed a traditional dance and presented him with a turtle.

In the papal plane, Vatican officials showed off the turtle in its wooden cage and said the animal would be taken back to Vatican City.

At Luanda airport, Benedict referred to his own childhood growing up in Nazi Germany, saying he had known war and national divisions "as a result of inhuman and destructive ideologies, which, under the false appearance of dreams and illusions, caused the yoke of oppression to weigh down upon the people".

"You can therefore understand how keenly aware I am of dialogue as a way of overcoming every form of conflict and tension," he said.

Angola was lacerated by civil war from independence in 1975 until 2002.

Its colonial history has given the country Christian roots and today more than 60 per cent of the population is Catholic.