Pope Benedict XVI to visit Benin
Monrovia/Vatican City - Pope Benedict XVI is set to arrive in Benin on Friday, on a three-day visit that will be his second trip to Africa, after visiting Cameroon and Angola in 2009.
Ahead of his departure, the 84-year-old pope asked Catholics around the world to pray for peace in African nations affected by violence.
Peaceful Benin, nestled between Togo and Nigeria, is not one of them. But the pope is assured of a warm reception in the francophone country, where 30% of the population is Catholic.
Benedict, who became pope in 2005, will meet Benin's Christian president, Thomas Boni Yayi, who converted from Islam, and visit the cathedral and other religious sites in Cotonou, the economic capital.
Sunday's holy mass will be held at Cotonou's Friendship Stadium. The pope is expected to pray privately at the tomb of Beninese Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who was the highest ranking sub-Saharan African in the Catholic church at the time of his death in 2008.
Speaking to a crowd of thousands of Catholics gathered in St Peter's Square on Sunday, the pontiff blessed the efforts "of all persons who operate for reconciliation, justice and peace".
The pilgrimage to Benin will "reaffirm the faith and hope of the Christians of Africa," he said.
While in Benin, the pope is expected to comment on issues such as inter-religious dialogue and peace building in Africa.
His visit also marks the 150th anniversary of the year the first Christian missionaries arrived in Benin, disembarking at the port of Ouidah in 1861.
During the last papal visit to the continent in 2009, debate about condoms overshadowed other issues such as economic justice and development.
Benin is a densely populated nation of 9 million people, with a high birth rate and high maternal mortality rate in some rural areas.
Although Benin conducted largely democratic and transparent elections in March, the country has grappled with natural disasters in the last few years, including flooding and mudslides. Offshore piracy is also a threat.
Half of Benin's population is Christian, with Islam and Animism, notably Voodoism, also prominent. With inter-faith issues on the pontiff's agenda, preparations for the visit are under way at Cotonou's mosques, as well as its churches.
"We're ready to welcome him," imam Boukari Moutawakil told Benin newspaper L'Areignee. "He's a man as spiritual as imams and others, and no matter which country he visits, he prays for peace, solidarity and love."
Voodoo leader Dah Adoko Gbediga told the newspaper he would welcome the pope "with open arms." He said, "There is a strong relationship between Catholicism and Voodooism."
With two days to go before the pontiff arrives, radio stations in Cotonou are playing specially written tracks by African artists such as Congolese star and Christian convert Papa Wemba.
In six years as pope, Benedict XVI has visited 22 countries. In 2012, he is considering visiting Mexico, Cuba, Iraq and Monaco.