LUANDA (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, making his first visit to Africa, Friday urged Angolans, still recovering from nearly three decades of civil war in their oil-rich country, to build peace and understanding between peoples.
The Pope, on the second and last stop of his tour, spoke shortly after landing at Luanda airport, where he was greeted by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, his government and members of the Catholic Church.
Millions more are expected to turn out over the next three days in the overwhelmingly Catholic capital Luanda.
“Dear Angolans, your land is abundant and your nation is mighty. Make use of these advantages to build peace and understanding between peoples,” the Pope said.
“To this end, I ask you: do not yield to the law of the strongest! God has enabled human beings to fly, over and above their natural tendencies, on the wings of reason and faith.”
While flying over the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the Pope also sent a message of reconciliation to that country and its leader, President Joseph Kabila.
His predecessor, John Paul II, visited Angola in 1992 during a lull in fighting between the ruling MPLA and UNITA rebels. The fighting resumed after UNITA rejected the results of an election.
The war, which claimed over half a million lives and displaced millions, ended in 2002. Since then the former Portuguese colony’s economy has been growing rapidly on the back of record oil and diamond exports.
But two-thirds of the population still live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank. In his speech, the Pope told the government more should be done to tackle poverty.
“Unfortunately, within the borders of Angola, there are still many poor people demanding that their rights be respected. The multitude of Angolans who live below the threshold of absolute poverty must not be forgotten,” said the Pope, standing beside the Angolan president.
“Do not disappoint their expectations.”
Dos Santos, whose government has spent billions of dollars in recent years to rebuild the nation, agreed.
“This is just the beginning and we know that the road toward the well-being of the people and national reconstruction is long,” he said.
The highlight of the trip is an open-air mass Sunday which half a million people are expected to attend. Over 60 percent of Angolans are believed to be Catholic — a religion imposed on them by Portuguese missionaries 500 years ago.
The Pope’s rejection of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which caused controversy at the start of his Africa trip, will also cause unease in Angola, whose government is carrying out a massive nationwide campaign to promote condoms.
Only an estimated 2.1 percent of the 16.5 million Angolans have tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to government figures. The civil war is believed to have acted as a barrier to the spread of the virus.
Most of Angola’s neighbors suffer from far higher rates of HIV infection, like Namibia, one in five of whose people are believed to suffer from the deadly virus.
Reporting by Henrique Almeida and Phillip Pullella; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Tim Pearce