LUANDA (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, on a visit to Angola marred by a deadly stampede, on Saturday urged Angolan Catholics to shun witchcraft and woo back those who have left the Catholic church to join other religious groups.
Two teenage girls were killed and at least eight injured in the stampede to enter a stadium in downtown Luanda where Pope Benedict later presided at a youth rally, an official said.
Maria das Dores Celina, a nurse at Josina Machel Hospital, told Reuters the incident happened as thousands of people rushed to enter the venue before the Pope arrived. The two girls arrived dead at the hospital, she added.
The 81-year-old pope, showing signs of fatigue in the humid heat, also said a mass for several thousand people inside a church as thousands followed the service outside.
In his homily, he urged his listeners to reach out to those Angolans who believe in witchcraft and spirits.
“So many of them are living in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers. In their bewilderment they even end up condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers,” he said.
Last year police rescued 40 children held in a house by two religious sects after their own families accused them of witchcraft. The sect leaders were later arrested.
Charismatic guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, for example, who led the opposition party UNITA in its war with the government, fought alongside a woman whose magic he believed would protect him from enemy fire.
But belief in spirits in Angola goes beyond evangelical sects. Human rights groups say many abandoned children have been accused of being witches, particularly in rural areas, because they are believed to be possessed by malign spirits.
The spread of evangelical sects has been a big problem for the Catholic Church since 27 years of civil war ended in 2002.
The number of sects in the former Portuguese colony has jumped to 900 from just 50 in 1992, the year the government abandoned Marxism, according to Angola’s national institute on religion.
Experts say the sects attract Angolans because their rituals are very intense and blend in traditional African beliefs, and some promise an immediate end to suffering in a country where the majority of the population is still very poor.
In his homily, the pope urged Catholics to try to convince those who had left the Church that “Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers.”
The stampede at the stadium began when the doors opened, some four and a half hours before the pope arrived.
One of the eight injured, a 27-year old girl, lost her breath in the crush and collapsed shortly after entering the stadium. Police officials said over 30,000 people, including mothers with babies, attended the rally in sweltering heat.
“There were just too many people inside the stadium and the temperatures were too high,” said Conceicao Cassange, 27, as she lay in a hospital bed. “I think tomorrow things could be worse.”
On Sunday, the Pope will perform an open-air mass for half a million people. He is in Angola on the second and last leg of a tour of Africa, his first visit to the continent since taking over as pontiff. He will return to Rome on Monday morning.
Over 60 percent of Angolans are believed to be Catholic — a religion introduced by Portuguese missionaries 500 years ago.
Additional reporting by Henrique Almeida; Editing by Jonathan Wright