Pope Greeted With Cheers, Parties in Africa

It is the third day of his visit to Cameroon and Pope Benedict XVI continues to get the warmest and most spontaneous welcome he's ever received on any of the 11 foreign trips he's made since becoming pope in 2005.

It is an even warmer reception than he received when he visited his German homeland, but that's not surprising because this is Africa, where welcomes are traditionally friendly and noisy.

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The people here seem to be especially proud to greet Benedict on his first visit to the African continent as pope. He has only visited Africa once before, in 1987, when as cardinal he traveled to Kinshasa for a theological conference.

Pope's Visit Causes Traffic Jam

An amazing traffic jam was created again this morning as people converged enthusiastically on the soccer stadium in Yaounde, where the pope is saying Mass to a capacity crowd of 40,000 people.

African music and singing filled the air as people jostled for places and this turned into waves of cheering as the Popemobile arrived and did a lap around the stadium. Singing, clapping and traditional African songs drowned out the official choir. The presidential motorcade of Cameroon President Paul Biya was also met with a cheer, but it made no laps around the stadium though his motorcade was the bigger of the two.

Every day of this trip has been filled with enthusiasm from the people of Cameroon. On all the pope's routes through the capital of Cameroon Wednesday people lined the streets cheering, beating drums, waving flags and rattles, dancing and singing.

Some came prepared for the long wait in the sticky heat with food and drink while others bought from the street hawkers who peddled snacks, papal pamphlets and papal visit T-shirts to the crowds.

As is the tradition in African countries for visits from international dignitaries, there's been a rush on the colorful, patterned cotton fabric made specifically for the occasion to mark the historic visit.

The same fabric is used to make a variety of styles of shirts and long dresses and the carefully tailored outfits are being worn with flair to papal ceremonies but are also sported in the streets these days by men, women and children.

The printed fabric has a repeat pattern of beige and brown crosses with blotchy framed portrait photos of the pope and Biya, the papal coat of arms, angels, peace doves and the words "Visit of Pope Benedict XVI March 2009 Cameroon 2009" and "Justice, Reconciliation and Peace."

Church Ceremony Erupts in Singing

During a prayer ceremony in the Basilica Marie Reine des Apotres Wednesday afternoon, the packed church of about 3,500 nuns, priests and Cameroonian Catholics quietly listened to prayers sung mostly in Latin, the president and his wife seated in thrones across from the pontiff.

This was followed by a speech which the pope read partly in French and partly English, which was difficult to understand because of a poor sound system and the pope's accent.

The atmosphere inside the church was subdued, but occasionally the sound of the large crowd left waiting outside in the rain filtered into the church as they happily shrieked and sang through the downpour.

The excitement had been hard to contain apparently because as soon as the final papal blessing had been imparted the whole congregation erupted into applause and cheers as it burst out loudly into a traditional song.

Flags appeared, some people stood on pews and all clapped with their arms raised above their heads and their bodies swaying. As the pope left the church, made his way through the crowds to his Popemobile and slowly moved off, the faithful flooded out of the church to join the street party.

People in Yaounde seem genuinely enthusiastic and excited about Pope Benedict's visit here. The number of Catholics is rising steadily in Cameroon. Catholics are currently roughly 26 percent of the country's 18.2 million inhabitants, but the church is facing competition from increasingly popular evangelical movements and "the growing influence of superstitious forms of religion" that the pope mentioned in his speech to bishops.

Chrystele Assoh, a 25-year-old police officer attending a papal ceremony for the first time in her life, said she believes the country is especially blessed because it has received three papal visits.

Pope John Paul II, who visited 42 African countries during his 27-year papacy, stopped in Cameroon in 1986 and 1995.

"I will feel spiritually fulfilled seeing him," said Elizabeth Mbah who traveled hours from Buea to see the pope. She sees her trip to Yaounde as a pilgrimage and has been fasting for 40 days now awaiting the pope's arrival, but feels fine. In fact, she is exhilarated.

"Everyone in my hometown has asked me to bring them back the pope's blessing," she said.

No Controversy in Cameroon Over Pope's Condom Stance

Most Catholics in Yaounde I spoke to seemed to have no problem with the pope's comments on AIDS. Speaking to the press en route to Cameroon from Rome Tuesday, the pope said that condoms were not a solution and on the contrary increased the problem of AIDS.

Mbah, who works with women groups in parishes across the country, said, "Abstinence is the only way to stop the spread of AIDS. It works! We must first teach the children the importance of abstinence so that they abstain from premarital sex and then teach them the importance of fidelity in marriage."

Nigerian businessman Charles Noikwonfu, who traveled from southern Cameroon to see the pope, also said that "condoms are not a solution."

"They do not stop the spread of HIV," he said. "The only solution is a solid partnership."

President Hoping for Political Mileage From Pope Visit

Biya, Cameroon's president, is obviously hoping to get some political mileage from this visit. He is a former Catholic seminarian who likes to show his ties to the church.

The press information kit came with small plastic key chains -- a photo of Biya and the pope smiling together on one side and the words "Perfect Communion" alongside the Cameroon and Vatican flags on the other.

Billboards throughout the city echo the sentiment.

Biya is one of Africa's longest ruling strongmen. In power since 1982, he has often been accused of ruling the country using a combination of intimidation and corruption. Recently the human rights organization Amnesty International accused him of seeking to crush political opposition.

Many in Cameroon wish he would step down and not run for election again in 2011 as he is expected to announce soon. There doesn't seem to be much love for the president around Yaounde; some say bitterly he spends most of the year abroad, mostly in Switzerland.

According to the U.S. State Department, Cameroon's corruption level is among the highest in the world, and in his arrival speech at the Yaounde airport Tuesday the pope said that "in face of suffering or violence, poverty or hunger, corruption or abuse of power, a Christian can never remain silent."

Some saw this as directed at the president but the pope has made no further reference to the problem so far.

On the other hand, Cardinal Christian Tumi, Cameroon's only cardinal, in a front-page article in the daily newspaper Le Jour asked Biya not to run in the next elections.

Many Cameroonians have great expectations from the church, which is seen as an important voice demanding greater transparency and democracy in the country.

Biya's opulent life was on show Tuesday when he and his glamorous wife, with her towering hairstyle of long auburn curls, greeted the pope at his presidential palace in grand style.

The large, modern marble-and-metal building is set in luscious gated grounds on top of a hill overlooking the city.

About 100 water jets shot up from the large pool in front of the palace's main steps to form a large triumphant fountain display. More than 30 flags of Cameroon and the Vatican were flying from tall flagpoles positioned around the pool.

The presidential band and choir seated to the side of the entrance performed Italian opera arias, an "Ave Maria" and even an instrumental version of "O'Sole Mio" while waiting for the pope's arrival.

Presidential guards stood to attention in the sun along the red carpet dressed in their white, green and gold braided uniforms, wearing leather boots and ceremonial swords.

There was a lot of commotion when the pope's motorcade arrived, with security guards running to and fro as the president and his wife accompanied the pope inside to one elevator and the papal and presidential entourage waited patiently in a large huddle in the hall for their turn to get into the other elevator.

Two African cardinals, one from Cameroon and one from neighboring Nigeria, are accompanying the pope on this trip and both have abandoned the classic black and red cassocks in favor of heat-reflecting white. Everyone is in white on this trip; the bishops, too. This is a custom in hot countries.

The pope leaves Cameroon Friday to travel to Angola, the second and last stop of his African trip, where another warm welcome and more street parties are expected to greet him.