Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pope Tells Clergy in Angola to Work Against Belief in Witchcraft

Published: March 21, 2009

LUANDA, Angola — Pope Benedict XVI, nearing the end of his first pilgrimage to Africa, on Saturday told priests and nuns of their duty to divert their fellow Angolans from malign beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery.
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Joäo Silva for The New York Times

Pope Benedict XVI has visited Cameroon and Angola.

“Who can go to them to proclaim that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers?” he asked guests at an invitation-only Mass in the blue-domed splendor of St. Paul’s Church in the capital.

Morning light flooded through stained-glass windows — a depiction of Christ on the cross in the center — as the 81-year-old, German-born pontiff spoke of Angolans so fearful of evil spirits that they wrongly condemn innocent children and the elderly for being possessed by demons.

It was a somber moment at the end of Benedict’s homily, words of challenge to the devout white-frocked worshipers crowded into the pews.

Later in the day, the mood would entirely change as the pope went to an outdoor sports stadium to speak to thousands of young people. Samba and reggae bands were the warm-up for Benedict, who then quoted the biblical Book of Revelation in assuring the youths, most dressed in bluejeans and T-shirts, that God is the future, ready to wipe away their tears and end their pain.

This is the pope’s first trip to Africa, where the Roman Catholic Church has experienced remarkable growth on a continent with extraordinary problems, including a sub-Saharan region with three-quarters of the world’s AIDS deaths and 610 million people living on an average of less than $2.50 a day.

On Tuesday, Benedict’s visit began in Cameroon, where, among other issues, he dealt with the church’s competition for souls with Islam. On Friday, he moved to oil-rich Angola, his second and last stop, where he immediately spoke out against corruption and the disregard of the poor by the wealthy.

On Saturday, at St. Paul’s, he addressed the accommodations of faith by some Africans who mix their Christianity with animism living “in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers.”

The pope asked rhetorically: “Why not leave them in peace? They have their truth, and we have ours.” He then answered that there was no injustice in presenting the ways of Christ to others, granting “them the opportunity of finding their truest and most authentic selves” and offering them “this possibility of attaining eternal life.”

Human rights groups may well appreciate Benedict’s decision to raise the issue of sorcery. In parts of Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic, thousands of children are accused of witchcraft and are cast out of their homes, blinded or killed, according to advocates for the youngsters.

The latest human rights report for Angola by the United States State Department says that children accused of witchcraft suffer abuses such as “the denial of food and water, or ritualistic cuttings and the placing of various caustic oils or peppers on their eyes or ears.”

The report mentions a 2007 case where a teacher was sentenced to eight years of hard labor after kidnapping and beating two children he suspected of sorcery; one of them died of injuries.

There are other threats to the young, of course, and Benedict spoke of these at the stadium. “The dominant societal culture is not helping you to live by Jesus’ word,” he said to about 20,000 adoring teenagers and young adults, describing that culture as “individualistic and hedonistic.”

One of those youths in attendance, 17-year-old Quimimo de Almeida Jamba, knew a lot about that hedonism, explaining that he spent most of his money on beer and marijuana.

“But the Holy Father can straighten me out,” he said confidently. “That’s why I have come here, to be religious. I want to be a pilot someday.”

Florencio Lucas, a 30-year-old teacher wearing a Pope Benedict T-shirt, said he rigidly followed the dictates of the church: no drugs, no alcohol, no premarital sex. Then he smiled sheepishly. “Maybe not the sex part,” he said, additionally admitting that he disobeyed the pope’s teachings about birth control. “Condoms protect you from sexually transmitted diseases,” Mr. Lucas said. “Condoms are very good.”

On the flight from Rome to Africa, Benedict had renewed the church’s objection to the use of condoms as a prevention against AIDS, going so far as to say the precaution actually “increases the problem” of H.I.V. infection.

Fernanda Gabriela Abel, 16, said she disagreed with the pope about that, but nevertheless thought he was a terrific human being.

“I feel you could talk to him about anything,” she said of the man whose face adorned her oversized T-shirt. “The pope would listen, not like some people — not like my parents, for instance. My parents won’t discuss anything that has to do with pregnancy or abortion. They won’t deal with it.”