Pope John Paul II leaves today on his third tour of Africa, aiming to reconcile Christianity with local beliefs on a continent where Islam and animism predominate. He will visit six black African states with substantial numbers of Roman Catholics before rounding off the 12-day trip with a brief stopover in Morocco, which is Muslim. The pontiff is expected to speak out on Africa's grave problems of poverty, famine, and armed conflict.
African Catholics are prone to tinge their beliefs with local traditions, and church sources said the blending of Roman Catholic dogma with African conditions was expected to be the most delicate topic of the visit.
Vatican officials estimate that 16 percent of Africans are now Catholic, compared with 1 percent in 1900. With its aid and evangelical programs, the Vatican expects to raise the number of Catholics in Africa to 100 million by the year 2000 -- 18 percent of the population predicted for Africa by that year.
Catholic missionaries from various religious orders including the Jesuits are actively engaged in educational efforts -- running schools and organizing special courses -- to eradicate illiteracy in black Africa.
No figures are available, but Vatican sources say an increasing number of Africa's ruling class have attended Catholic-run schools. Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, a Marxist, was educated in Catholic missionary schools. Leaders of three countries the Pope is visiting -- Ivory Coast, Zaire, and Togo -- are Catholic.
In Kenya, the church is playing a major critic's role, denouncing the nation's campaign of sterilization and artificial birth control. Kenya has the world's highest rate of population growth: 4 percent a year.