LUANDA (Reuters) - The surge in worshippers at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in staunchly Catholic Luanda has prompted the pastor to buy a $20,000 grand piano and six loudspeakers for those outside to listen to his sermons.
In mountainous Huambo province, home to the fastest-growing evangelical churches in Angola, dozens of people crowd inside the Christ Vision Church, a small tin hut, singing: “You are poor but God loves you.”
Like other evangelical churches across Angola, these two have flourished since the end of civil war in 2002, raising fears among Catholics their Church is losing ground. A visit by Pope Benedict will address that this month.
Just over half Angola’s 16.5 million people are Catholic, but the number of diversified sects has jumped to 900 from just 50 in 1992 -- the year the government abandoned Marxism, according to Angola’s national institute on religion.
The Pope’s visit will officially celebrate 500 years of evangelization in Angola, and may bring a boost to Catholic media as part of a Church bid for more hearts and minds.
“The Catholic Church lacks passion. It’s really not a very exciting place,” said Joao, from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Luanda, before holding his hands in the air to ask God to expel the evil demons from his body.
Less than a block away, a woman knelt down before a statue of Christ in a half-empty Roman Catholic Church and began her daily prayer in silence.
“These evangelical churches make too much noise and empty promises to attract people, but soon people will realize we are the only path toward God,” said Madalena, 44, after finishing her hour-long prayer.
The attraction of evangelicism is clear, experts say.
“Evangelical pastors are now going to provinces like Huambo that were hard to reach during the war,” Fatima Viegas, the head of the national institute on religion and author of books on religion, told Reuters.
“These churches have become very attractive to Angolans because their rituals are very intense and some of them promise an immediate end to suffering, in a country where the majority of the population is still poor.”
The widespread belief in witchcraft has also been a problem for the Catholic Church in Angola.
Jonas Savimbi, who led the opposition party UNITA in its war against the government, fought alongside a woman whose magic he believed would protect him from enemy fire.
Last year, police rescued 40 children who had been held in a house by two religious sects after being accused by their own families of witchcraft. The sects’ leaders were later arrested.
“The increasing number of sects is a threat to everyone, including the Catholic Church, because more and more people are being lured to these churches with empty promises,” said Jose Queiroz Alves, archbishop of Huambo, after holding an hour-long mass in the local Umbundo language.
Some Catholic leaders see things from a different perspective. “The positive side of this phenomenon is that it shows there is an increasing thirst for God,” Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento said in a recent interview with Reuters.
“But those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water.”
The Catholic Church hopes Pope Benedict’s visit to the former Portuguese colony will help strengthen Catholicism in Africa, where a recent row about a bishop who denies the Holocaust happened has resonated less than in Europe and the United States.
Pope Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, visited Angola in 1992 during a lull in fighting between the ruling MPLA and UNITA rebels. The fighting resumed after UNITA failed to accept the results of an election.
Benedict’s March 20-23 visit will include an open-air mass in the capital Luanda and a meeting with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos that experts say could help end years of government restrictions on Angola’s only Catholic radio station.
The government pulled the plug on Radio Ecclesia two years after the post-independence civil war began in 1975, accusing it of siding with rebels of the main opposition UNITA, which continued to fight the government for 27 years.
Ecclesia returned to the air in 1997 after the government abandoned Marxism but its diet of Sunday mass, political debates and regular criticism of the government has since been limited to the capital Luanda.
“The radio ban is a trauma the government still has from the war years because of Ecclesia’s determination always to speak loud and clear to everyone,” Mauricio Camuto, head of Radio Ecclesia, told Reuters.
Ecclesia is the only religious radio station in Angola, boasting an audience of over 3 million in Luanda, according to Camuto. The government controls the only nationwide broadcaster in a country twice the size of Texas.
There are no evangelical radio stations in Angola, but the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God owns an international media network whose television channel Record can be viewed through Angola’s cable network.
Asked if he feared growing competition from evangelical churches could weaken the Catholic community, Camuto said: ”In a country where there is still widespread poverty it is easier for other religious sects to attract followers with all kinds of promises.
“But a visit by the Pope could finally allow us to speak the word of God to all Angolans and remain ahead of the competition,” added Camuto.
Editing by Tim Pearce and Sara Ledwith