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Pope visits Africa's growing flock

Pope Benedict XVI arrived Tuesday for his first visit as pope. The continent has seen a steady rise in religion, with Catholics making up one-fifth of the population.

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Starting on Tuesday, in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde, Pope Benedict (known as Benoit in French-speaking Africa) will meet with the country's leaders and conduct masses for the large Catholic population. He will also meet with leaders of Cameroon's large Muslim community.

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Cameroon has avoided many of the sectarian conflicts that have cropped up repeatedly in Nigeria and Sudan, although the aggressiveness of Muslim and Christian missionaries, and the political use of religion by national leaders found in this country both contribute to violence throughout Africa.

After Cameroon, the pope will go to Angola – site of the first African mission, where Portuguese priests began to convert people 500 years ago. Angola's newfound oil wealth is just beginning to help the country rebuild after a 27-year civil war, which ended in 2002.

In a speech Sunday, Pope Benedict said he would avoid politics, but would discuss with political leaders the crippling effects of corruption. He also promised to appeal to donor nations not to neglect Africa.

"I entrust to the heavenly intercession of this great saint the upcoming pilgrimage and the populations of Africa as a whole, with the challenges that mark them and the hopes that animate them," the pope said.

"In particular, I think of the victims of hunger, of disease, of injustice, of fratricidal conflicts, and of every form of violence that continues to afflict adults and children, without sparing missionaries, priests ... and volunteers," he said.

By choosing Cameroon and Angola, the pope has underlined the church's strength in non-English-speaking Africa. Some aid workers say the church flexes its power in French-speaking Africa almost as if it were the state itself.

"If you [mess around] with the Catholic Church, they will break you," says Christine Karumba, country director for the Democratic Republic of Congo for Women for Women International, a women's rights organization based in Washington. "If they like you, they'll fight for you."

Family planning is a big initiative for the group, and condom distribution was one of its programs, which the church vehemently opposes. The church made it very hard for her to carry out other programs, because of its opposition to that issue, she says, so she had to go into overdrive diplomatically to smooth things over.

A priest from the village of Kanyola says the Congolese people would be overjoyed if the pope came "because he's the top guy. The joy to see the father come to our home would be huge."

He said if he had a message for the pope, it would be: "We want you to lobby for peace and unity [in Congo] so the population can live without worry."

Africans will certainly expect the Church to come to Africa's aid, says Father Rutechura, noting that already it is one of the major donors in Africa. "People will have expectations and hope that the religion of Christianity will respond with the provision of social services that could make people better off. There is an issue of credibility here that we get value, not political short-term promises."

Matthew Clark contributed from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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