Pope condemns sexual violence against women

In Angola, Benedict XVI chides countries of African continent that approve of abortion.

Pope Benedict 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict XVI, welcomed to this sweltering capital 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 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. "I have come to see our papa because he is good for the church and the church is good to us," said Fatima de Castro, a 52-year-old housekeeper who traveled 14 hours through the night to welcome the pope outside Luanda's airport. Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos greeted the 81-year-old Benedict as he descended from his chartered plane onto a red carpet under a tropical sun that reddened his face. This former Portuguese colony is mainly Catholic and Benedict 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," Benedict told an audience of government leaders and foreign diplomats in the late afternoon. He also criticized what he called the "irony of those who promote abortion as a form of 'maternal' health care." 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 weeklong trip, Benedict drew criticism from aid agencies and some European governments when he said that condoms were not the answer to Africa's severe AIDS epidemic, suggesting that sexual behavior was the issue. Igor Rivas, a 25-year-old student studying economics, was in the crowd of thousands out to welcome the Catholic leader. "I want the benediction of the pope. I know I am a sinner. I fight to abstain from sex," Rivas said. "I think condoms are not the good way for us. Though they may be useful, they are not the right choice for Catholics, so I need his blessing." In his remarks to diplomats, Benedict also called for a "conversion of hearts" to rid Angola and the rest of Africa of corruption. Reporters were barred from the meeting and the Vatican said it would complain with the Angolan government. The pope arrived in Angola from Cameroon, where his visit was capped Friday morning by a meeting with about 15 pygmies who performed a traditional dance and presented him with a turtle. Vatican officials showed off the turtle in his wooden cage to reporters traveling in the papal plane and said the animal would be taken back with the pontiff to Vatican City. In remarks at the 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 and making every nation, including your own, into a house of peace and fraternity," he said. Angola was lacerated by a civil war that started with its 1975 independence and ended in 2002. Its history as a former Portuguese colony has given the country Christian roots and today about 8.6 million people, or more than 60 percent of the population, are Catholic. "Christianity is not only a religion but a composite part of the Angolan identity," said Nelson Pestana, a political scientist who lectures at the Catholic University of Angola. Dos Santos' party swept elections last year that critics say were marred by fraud and corruption. The victory has silenced many dissenting voices, including those of the church, Pestana said, adding that the pope should be careful that his visit does not appear to legitimize dos Santos' 30-year rule. "The pope ... would influence the powers that be in Angola by drawing greater attention to the poor," he said. "But the regime wants a sort of papal benediction, so that its authoritarianism will not be seen as an absolute dictatorship but a symbolic enthronement as a divinely inspired power." In his welcome speech, Benedict did, indeed, refer to Angola's poverty as well as its rich natural resources, saying the multitude of poor Angolans must not be forgotten. Angola is rich in diamonds and oil, but war and mismanagement have left most of its people in poverty. Pestana says some of the country's bishops have spoken out in courageous pastoral letters condemning those who use the country's multibillion-dollar oil revenues for personal enrichment.