Pope Benedict opened a special meeting of clerics about Africa on Sunday by praising the continent as a font of spirituality but lamenting that it is afflicted by materialism and religious fundamentalism.
A Congolese choir, with bongo drums, electric guitars and swaying, ululating singers, filled St Peter's Basilica with African hymns as Benedict formally opened the synod, a three-week gathering of some 300 prelates to discuss the church's problems in Africa.
Benedict praised Africa's rich cultural and spiritual treasures, saying they were the "spiritual lung" for a world increasingly in a crisis of faith and hope.
But he said Africa has also been afflicted by materialism, the "toxic spiritual garbage" exported by developed countries. "In this sense, colonialism, while finished in the political sphere, hasn't really ended," he said.
As a result, he said, Africa is also at risk of another "virus:" religious fundamentalism. Groups claiming to be from religious backgrounds are spreading across the continent. "They are doing so in the name of God, but with a logic that is opposed to divine logic: teaching and working not with love and respect for freedom, but with intolerance and violence," he said. He urged the Catholic Church in Africa to be a voice of reconciliation, justice and peace among the continent's various ethnic and religious groups.
The Catholic Church is growing enormously in Africa; between 1978 and 2007, the number of Catholics grew from 55 million to 146 million. Vatican statistics show that more than 17 per cent of Africa's population is Catholic.
But at the same time, the region's poverty, conflicts and AIDS have posed challenges for the church. Among the thorny issues that bishops might raise at the synod is the Vatican's ban on condom use. Many say condoms could help prevent the spread of AIDS on the continent.
During the meeting, several outside experts will be addressing the prelates, including the head of the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force for Darfur, Sudan, and the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
In a reminder of Africa's many conflicts, Benedict issued a special appeal Sunday for reconciliation and dialogue in Guinea, where soldiers fired at a pro-democracy rally last week, reportedly killing 157 people. The victims were participating in a protest against Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara, who seized power in a coup last December.