YAOUNDE (Reuters) - When Pope Benedict and African clergy seek to ease the continent’s ills this week, many in Cameroon want him to start by looking at the uglier side of the country hosting the first stop on his maiden African tour.
The nation of Christians, Muslims and animists has exported oil and mineral for years, but most still live in grinding poverty. Politics is dominated by corruption scandals and President Paul Biya’s bid to extend his 26-year rule.
“Pope Benedict XVI will not know when he visits Yaounde that beyond the thousands of smiling faces welcoming him are millions of destitute Cameroonians who wish he did not come,” said Michael Kimbi Tchenga, a resident of the capital Yaounde.
Cameroon is one of the biggest economies in West and Central Africa, growing bananas, cocoa and cotton. It also has a growing mines sector, but it lags poorer nations on health and education.
Biya’s administration changed the constitution last year to allow him to stand for further presidential terms, provoking riots by crowds already fuming over rising food and fuel prices.
Last week security forces smashed up street stalls in an effort to clean up Yaounde for the Pope’s arrival.
“The authorities are doing everything to please the Pope to the detriment of the suffering masses,” Tchenga said.
The Pope’s visit will underscore the needs of the world’s poorest continent as developed nations battle a deepening economic crisis, which threatens to increase donor fatigue.
In Cameroon, the Pope will meet clergy from all over the continent, in preparation for a meeting of African bishops later this year to see how the church can help ease Africa’s ills.
“There is trouble all over the region ... So the Pope needs to address the problem of justice, peace, reconciliation and bringing people together,” said Joseph Ateba, bishop of the port city of Kribi.
“Here it is a pastoral visit for the whole of Africa. He is coming with a message of hope,” he said.
“NOT APPROVING THE REGIME”
On a continent often blighted by religious and inter-communal violence, Cameroon boasts tolerance. The country’s 4.5 million Catholics are fewer than the 7 million Protestants, while there are some 2.5 million Muslims in the north and millions more maintain local beliefs.
“Cameroon is truly a prayerful nation where its citizens, like palm wine, are bubbling with spirituality, something the Vatican long noticed and is encouraging,” Cameroonian state radio announced Sunday.
In Angola, the second stop on a two-nation tour, the Pope will celebrate 500 years of Christianity in Africa.
Despite the Vatican’s efforts to broaden the importance of the Pope’s visit beyond Cameroon, some accuse the government of using it to try and sanction the status quo.
“Let us not be under any illusions, the Pope is coming in his religious and political capacity but not to give his approval of the regime in place,” said priest Ludovic Lado, who lectures at Yaounde’s Catholic University of Central Africa.
“Biya’s Cameroon that Benedict XVI will visit is far from a state of law and the priests in Cameroon that he will meet have the moral obligation to tell him this. It is important that the Pope knows that we are talking about a regime whose supporters have systematically looted Cameroon over the decades.”
“While the elite loot, there are no crayons in the schools for the poor or syringes in the hospitals,” he added.
Writing by David Lewis; editing by Alistair Thomson and Myra MacDonald
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