Friday, March 20, 2009

In Angola, "Bem Vindo, 'Papa Amigo'"

Earlier today, the Pope departed Cameroon for the second half of his African trek, arriving in Angola shortly after noon.

While by all accounts B16 got a rapturous reception on his first stop -- a quarter of whose 18 million residents are Catholic -- an even bigger one is expected in Luanda, the onetime Portugese colony's seat, where a majority of the population of 13 million are welcoming their spiritual leader.

The Angola stop is to mark the 500th anniversary of the country's first evangelization... via BBC, some impressions from the ground:
Millions are expected to turn out over the next three days as he tours the capital Luanda.

Benedict will be meeting politicians, church leaders, women's groups and young people, many of whom have travelled into Luanda especially, but the highlight of the visit will be an open-air mass on Sunday in front of a cement factory.

Fifty thousands tons of steel have been used to create a stage of 60 metres squared and there are 11 sound towers ready to boom out the Pontiff's words across the 20 hectare space.

Church officials say they are expecting 500,000 people, others say it could be as many as two million - similar to the crowds attracted by the ruling MPLA (Popular Movement for Liberation of Angola) for their election rally last September.

The catchy chant of the television and radio advert goes "Papa, Amigo, Angola esta contigo" - "Pope, my friend, Angola is with you."

And this is a good representation of the mood here.

Street sellers are dotted across the city selling Papa Bento caps, t-shirts, badges and rosaries and everyone you speak to is full of excitement for the visit.

Isabel Vando, 52, said: "We are very happy that he's coming here to Angola, our holy father the Pope.

"This is a great moment not just for Catholics but for all Angolans. It is the second time a pope has visited us and our country is blessed.

"He will bring a message of peace and harmony to the people and most of all, love.

"I will be there at the mass on Sunday, of course, how could I miss it?"

Sister Rosa, 32, looking after a group of several hundred young people who have been bussed into Luanda to meet the pope at the city's Coqueiros stadium, said: "For young people this is a visit of hope.

"Angola is a young country and these young people," she said, looking around at the group of excited teenagers, "they are its future.

"They want a message of peace, happiness, to help them be able to realise their dreams."...

Behind the scenes of this frenzied excitement however, there is a more serious side to Benedict's visit.

Angola spent three decades embroiled in a bloody civil war which claimed half a million lives and saw many more displaced.

The former Portuguese colony has been at peace for nearly seven years and thanks to vast oil and diamond resources, it has embarked on an ambitious reconstruction programme for new schools, new roads, new hospitals and new homes.

Last September Angola held its first election in 16 years and despite some hitches, it was hailed as "credible" and "transparent" and has seen the beginning of a new era of democracy and progress for the country which knew little but conflict for so long.

Benedict's visit is seen a confirmation of these steps forward and an acknowledgment of the process of peaceful conciliation, much of which has been driven by the church.

Church leaders are also hoping Benedict's tour will put pressure on the government to allow the church to broadcast its Luanda-based radio station nationally.

Radio Ecclesia is widely-acknowledged as the most credible independent news source in Angola and features open debates on issues like human rights and poverty.

But the government, which continues to hold a tight rein over state media, has blocked national transmission.

Ecclesia's director Father Mauricio Camuto said: "People all over the country are asking when they will receive our broadcasts because people outside Luanda want to take part in these discussions.

"The attitude not to allow us to broadcast nationally is for me out of date because we are no longer in a time of controlled information when people are only able to hear the information the government wants them to hear."

Pope Benedict will meet President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in private for 45 minutes, according to the Vatican's schedule.

Ecclesia will be broadcasting live from the Presidential Palace at the news conference afterwards, hoping for its own piece of good news.
After a period of rest, the first public pieces of Benedict's Angola itinerary are soon to wrap -- meetings with the civil authorities and the nation's bishops.

Fulltexts soon to come.

PHOTO: Getty Images