Page last updated at 01:14 GMT, Friday, 20 March 2009

Angolans set to embrace Pope Benedict

Catholic ladies, Angola
Angolan ladies, in traditional women's outfits, will go to the "mega mass"

By Louise Redvers
BBC News, Luanda

Pope Benedict XVI is set to get a rapturous welcome when he arrives in Angola, where more than half the population is Catholic.

The first Catholic convert in sub-Saharan Africa was baptised by Portuguese missionaries in what is now Angola almost 500 years ago.

This oil- and diamond-rich country is slowly recovering from almost 30 years of conflict.

I will be there at the mass on Sunday, of course, how could I miss it?
Isabel Vando, 52
While the government sees the visit as a seal of approval after last year's elections, some hope the Pope will push for an easing of tight media controls which help the ruling party.

Preparations for the visit have cost millions of dollars and have included new roads, new trees, new pavements, church renovations and even a pop concert.

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.

'Papa amigo'

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.

Popesellers: a stall in downtown Luanda with pope merchandise
The Pope's visit means good business for Luanda's street vendors

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.

People are not always just with one partner and in that case, people should definitely use condoms
Francisco Tando, 27, teacher
"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."

The Pope's continued rejection of condoms in the fight against HIV/Aids caused controversy as he began his Africa tour and views are mixed on Luanda's streets.

"I think the Pope is right, you should only have one partner in order not to spread this illness," said technician Joao Paulo, 26.

But Francisco Tando, 27, a teacher and basketball referee thinks this is not realistic.

"I think from a religious context, what the Pope is saying is people should be faithful to one partner and I respect this belief.

"However, people are not always just with one partner and in that case, people should definitely use condoms because it is scientifically proven to stop the disease. "

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

Radio gag

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.

Church, Sao Paulo, Angola
This Church is one of many buildings to have benefited from a new paint job

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.

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