By Victor L. Simpson
Friday, March 20, 2009
YAOUNDE, Cameroon, March 19 -- Religion must reject violence, Pope Benedict XVI told Muslim leaders Thursday before celebrating an open-air Mass in front of thousands and delivering a message of hope for Africa's expanding, vibrant Catholic flock.
In Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, a crowd of 40,000 welcomed Benedict to a sports stadium -- his first occasion as pope to be among a great crowd of faithful on the continent that is witnessing the church's biggest growth.
In his homily, he expressed compassion for children being kidnapped and forced to fight by rebel groups trying to carve up parts of Africa.
"God loves you -- he has not forgotten you," he said in a message to those children.
Earlier, the pope met with 22 representatives of Cameroon's sizable Muslim minority and noted that religion is the basis of human civilization. He also returned to one of the key themes of his papacy, saying there is no incompatibility between faith and reason.
"Genuine religion . . . stands at the base of any authentically human culture," he said. "It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism, not only on principles of faith but also of right reason."
The pope said that "religion and reason mutually reinforce one another," and he urged Catholics and Muslims to work together "to build a civilization of love."
Muslims make up about 22 percent of Cameroon's population, Catholics and animists 27 percent each, and Protestants 18 percent. Christians and Muslims largely coexist without problems in the West African nation, unlike in neighboring Nigeria, where religious strife has often exploded into violence.
The pope has often spoken of the need for religion to shun violence but has refrained from pointing any finger at specific faiths since a 2006 speech in which he linked Islam to violence.
After an angry reaction from the Islamic world, Benedict expressed regret for any offense caused by his remarks, and he has since met several times with Muslim leaders from several countries. He is scheduled to visit a mosque in Jordan next month.
Since Benedict stepped off the papal plane Tuesday, attention to his pilgrimage has focused largely on the Vatican's refusal to advocate the use of condoms as a way to help stop the spread of AIDS, which is ravaging Africa in a pandemic that affects millions.
Benedict's declaration on the plane that distributing condoms "increases" the AIDS problem has drawn international criticism from governments and organizations that fight the disease.
In one of his appearances Thursday, Benedict visited a center for the sick and infirm to express his compassion for those suffering from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The pope did not mention the Vatican stance against condoms.