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Pope appeals for African peace at huge mass

Pope Benedict XVI called for forgiveness and peace in Africa at a massive mass in civil war-scarred Angola on Sunday and expressed his sorrow for the deaths of two girls in a stampede.

world Updated: Mar 23, 2009 13:13 IST

Pope Benedict XVI called for forgiveness and peace in Africa at a massive mass in civil war-scarred Angola on Sunday and expressed his sorrow for the deaths of two girls in a stampede.

The girls were killed on Saturday when the gates of a stadium in the capital Luanda were opened for 30,000 youths who had come to hear him speak. Forty people were also injured in the crush.

"I offer my sympathies to their families and friends, and my deep sorrow, because they were coming to meet me. I pray for the wounded," Benedict said on Sunday during the biggest mass of his first African tour, which drew hundreds of thousands of faithful.

Benedict also prayed for national reconciliation in Angola, still recovering from a seven-year civil war, describing the conflict that ended in 2002 as "devastating" and "inhumane."

He extended his prayers to Africa's Great Lakes region, buffeted by a myriad of rebellions, and appealed for the world to turn its gaze "towards this great continent, so rich in hope but so thirsty for justice, peace and a full and healthy development."

The crowds cheered as the pope, who returns to the Vatican on Monday, drove to a giant steel stage in a field that organisers said could hold two million people but was not completely full.

The event was far more orderly than the raucous reception the pope received on Saturday.

Keenly aware of the tragedy, organisers promptly escorted rowdy youths off the field. The last deadly stampede during a papal visit was in 1980, when nine people died in Kinshasa during a service by Pope John Paul II.

But most people followed the service, singing hymns in the blazing heat, with women in pink sarongs bearing the face of the pope and Jesus, while others had Benedict's image emblazoned on their T-shirts and baseball caps.

Health workers at a medical tent said they treated about 400 people for heat stroke, including two who were hospitalised.

Benedict used his homily to urge Angolans to rebuild their nation after decades of civil war, following on his earlier calls for African leaders to step up the fight against poverty and corruption.

"Tragically, the clouds of evil have also overshadowed Africa, including this beloved nation of Angola," he said of a country that Transparency International ranks among the world's most corrupt.

The pope denounced "the evil of war, the murderous fruits of tribalism and ethnic rivalry," but encouraged Angola's Catholics "to be the builders of a better tomorrow for your beloved country."

"It is to preach this message of forgiveness, hope and new life in Christ that I have come to Africa," he added.

Riding in his Popemobile to the mass in Luanda's hardscrabble Cimangola neighbourhood, Benedict got a brief glimpse of the misery many Angolans endure. Two-thirds survive on less than two dollars a day, despite the country's vast oil wealth.

Angola is home to one of sub-Saharan Africa's oldest Catholic communities -- the religion arrived with the Portuguese 500 years ago -- but religious competition is growing.

Organised evangelical churches, traditional faiths and home-grown sects are all capturing adherents, even though some of the shadier sects have been implicated in child abuse scandals and even human sacrifice.

On Saturday, Benedict condemned the practice of witchcraft and urged Catholic clergy and laypeople to convert more people to the faith.

Still, about 55 per cent of Angolans are Catholic, and the Church remains one of the few strong national voices outside of government, running a radio station in Luanda known for broadcasting dissenting views.

Local Church leaders hope the pope's visit will push Angola's government -- run by the formerly Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola -- to allow Radio Ecclesia to broadcast nationwide.

The mass was the last major event of the pope's two-nation tour, which began on Tuesday in Cameroon and sparked controversy before he even landed, when Benedict told reporters on the plane that condoms were aggravating the AIDS crisis.

First Published: Mar 23, 2009 13:11 IST