Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Benin on Friday to restore Christian faith in sub-Saharan Africa.
Benedict told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday that the mission of his trip is to "reaffirm the faith and hope of the Christians of Africa."
The Christian population in West Africa has grown 20 times larger over the last century. The number of Muslims has grown at a similar rate to 234 million. The region, and Africa as a whole, is nearly evenly split between Christians and Muslims.
Benedict will meet with Christian leaders in Benin, as well as traditional religious leaders like those from Vodun (or Voodoo) tribes. About 17 percent of the country practice Vodun.
The pope will also sign “The Pledge for Africa” – an exhortation that calls for peace, reconciliation and justice.
Recent religious-based violence has plagued the region – particularly western and northern Africa. Christians in Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and more have been the targets of attack from various fundamentalist Islamic organizations. Some of the conflicts are geographically derived – particularly Sudan – but Christians face localized, intense persecution despite their relatively large continental population.
The Pledge will also address the problems of corruption, rural poverty and unequal development.
The pope’s three-day schedule is packed. He will meet with leprosy sufferers on Saturday. On Sunday, he’ll conduct an open-air mass with more than 200 bishops from 35 countries.
Indeed, the Vatican is planning for the pope’s visit to be a pan-African event. Musicians from Congo, Angola and Guinea will receive the pope on Friday with a concert. Over the weekend, thousands of pilgrims are expected to travel from all corners of Africa to hear the pope speak, and pray in his presence for their home countries.
Benedict faced controversy when he first visited Africa in 2009. The pope declared that the distribution of condoms impeded efforts to eradicate AIDS. He said the only way to end AIDS is to practice abstinence.
Africans are hoping the pope’s visit will straighten the region out. Recent scandals in the regional Catholic Church have forced bishops to resign, and one to commit suicide.
The pope will also advocate a return to Catholicism for the many Africans who have converted to a Protestant denomination. Vatican officials have said people in areas like West Africa will “listen to the first person who comes,” according to AFP.
The pope will advocate a rejection of traditional Voodoo practices, a message in line with local religious leaders.
It is unknown if the pope will address the conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the area. Though Christians occupy the southern part of the continent, and Muslims the north, “neither Christianity nor Islam [is] progressing at the expense of the other,” according to a Pew Research study.
Though the population numbers may be equal, there is escalating, localized violence between sections of the two groups.