LUANDA, Angola — Pope Benedict XVI urged African Catholics to help eradicate widespread superstitious beliefs, saying they have left many people living in fear of evil spirits.
The pope’s words hit a nerve in Africa, where belief in witchcraft and sorcery has led to killings and discrimination, especially against children.
At a Mass March 21 in Luanda, the pope said Angolan Catholics should tackle the problem of superstition with the spirit of the country’s early missionaries.
“Today it is up to you, brothers and sisters, following in the footsteps of those heroic and holy heralds of God, to offer the risen Christ to your fellow citizens. So many of them are living in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers,” he said.
“In their bewilderment they end up even condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers. Who can go to them to proclaim that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers?” he said.
In Angola, police recently discovered a large group of children held by religious fanatics because they were suspected of being “possessed,” prompting new awareness of the problem.
“It’s a cultural mentality that is causing divisions, hatred and the consolidation of ignorance,” Angolan Bishop Jose Manuel Imbamba of Dundo said.
“Families are being destroyed, and it’s getting worse because children themselves are being accused of being witches,” he said.
Church leaders throughout Africa say belief in witchcraft is common in many areas of the continent. “Witchcraft is tearing villages and urban societies apart,” declared the working document for next October’s Synod of Bishops for Africa, which was released during the pope’s trip.
Witches and wizards are often blamed for misfortune, illness, infertility and natural catastrophes. Young children and older women are especially suspect, and some have been hacked to death by villagers in recent years.
On March 18, Amnesty International reported that more than 1,000 people have been rounded up in Gambia in a government-sponsored witch-hunt ordered by President Yahya Jammeh.
Botswanan Bishop Franklyn Nubuasah, vice president of the Interregional Meeting of Bishops in Southern Africa, said after the papal Mass that even Catholics are affected by milder forms of superstition.
“In southern Africa, many of our people who are sick go to traditional healers who claim to have relationships with ancestors. These ancestors then direct the treatment of the illness,” he said.
“We in the church have recently discovered that this has become a problem for us, because some of our priests and religious have also veered into this healing ministry. They claim to have communication with ancestors,” he said.
He said South African bishops issued a pastoral document to correct the problem, condemning the practice and sanctioning the priests and nuns involved. The issue remains for the church, however, since many people believe that traditional healing practices and ancestor communication really work, he said.
The pope celebrated the Mass in the Church of St. Paul, where an overflow crowd of nuns, priests and catechists spilled out onto an adjacent lawn. The pope was on the fifth day of his weeklong trip to Africa. He looked tired at the beginning of the Mass, but delivered his homily in a strong voice.
The pope’s comments on superstition underlined a broader point: that the church’s missionary effort must know no bounds, and should reach those with traditional beliefs.
The pope dismissed the argument that such people should be left in peace, on the grounds that “they have their truth and we have ours.” If Christians are really convinced they have a message that can save, he said, they are bound to present it to others.
“Indeed, we must do this. It is our duty to offer everyone this possibility of attaining eternal life,” he said.