Pope visits cathedral in African voodoo city

OUIDAH, Benin Sat Nov 19, 2011 9:21am EST

1 of 2. Pope Benedict XVI (C) waves to worshippers as he leaves the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in the city of Ouida in Benin November 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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OUIDAH, Benin (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Saturday visited the city considered the capital of voodoo in West Africa, praying at a Catholic cathedral just across the street from a large voodoo temple with a pit full of pythons.

While the pope was inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to sign a papal document on Africa, several dozen voodoo priests and their wives sat outside their temple in curiosity and in a gesture of welcome.

"For them, the pope is the top of the top," said Alexandre Ayite, a Benin diplomat in the receiving line in the cathedral.

A sign painted on the wall outside the voodoo complex read 'Temple of the Pythons' and a statue of a bare-breasted woman holding several snakes stood by the entrance. Inside was a small stone house with about two dozen large and baby pythons.

A voodoo priest put five or six around his neck and arms for a visiting reporter. Dressed in red, the snake priest and others dressed in white said they had nothing against the pope's visit.

Inside the cathedral, the pope ceremoniously signed a papal document on Africa in which he reflected on the results of a 2009 synod of African bishops which took place at the Vatican.

The document was mostly of a religious nature, but in its brief section on AIDS, the pope avoided directly addressing the issue of the use of condoms to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS.

He sparked controversy when he last came to Africa in 2009, telling reporters on his plane condoms could spread AIDS. The Vatican later said his remarks were taken out of context.

In the document, the pope said AIDS was, above all, an ethical problem. He called for a "change in behavior" and repeated the church's teaching that the best way to fight AIDS is sexual abstinence, rejection of sexual promiscuity and fidelity within marriage.

He did not use the word "condom" in the document, which repeated synod statements on the need for Catholics in Africa to have good relations with Islam and traditional religions while not relinquishing any part of their identity.

The pope's visit to Ouidah was also to pay tribute to the tomb of one of Benin's most famous native sons, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who worked in the Vatican for many years in a number of top church positions. He died in 2008.

EXPLOITATION

Earlier on Saturday, the 84-year-old pope said the developed world could not continue to look down on Africa "with the judgmental tone of a moralizer" and must come up with real partnership solutions to solve the continent's many problems.

He made his appeal in an address to officials of Benin, including President Thomas Boni Yayi and the diplomatic corps, on the second day of his trip to the West African nation.

"Too often our mind is blocked by prejudices or by images which give a negative impression of the realities of Africa, the fruit of a bleak analysis," he said.

"It is tempting to point to what does not work; it is easy to assume the judgmental tone of the moralizer or of the expert who imposes his conclusions and proposes, at the end of the day, few useful solutions."

He also repeated his condemnation of violence by anyone in God's name.

"No religion and no culture may justify the appeal or recourse to intolerance and violence," he said. "To use the revealed word, the sacred scriptures, or the name of God to justify our interests, our easy and convenient policies or our violence, is a very grave fault."

He said on Friday before he arrived that he chose Benin as the sole venue to deliver his papal document because in some ways the country was exemplary.

Benin made one of Africa's few peaceful transitions to democracy in 1990 after a period of Marxist-Leninist rule that had been supported by the former Soviet Union and Cuba.

Unlike some of its neighbors where inter-religious strife is rife, particularly Nigeria, Benin also enjoys mostly peaceful coexistence among Christianity, Islam and traditional religions.

At an inter-religious meeting in the Italian city of Assisi last month, the pope said he felt "profound shame" for the use of violence by some in the Catholic Church over the course of the centuries, a reference to the crusades and the use of force by missionaries in the New World.

The pope also said on Saturday that the rest of the world should not see Africa merely as a place whose vast resources of energy, minerals, agriculture and people "are easily exploited often for dubious ends."

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Sophie Hares)

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