Image: The faithful gather as Pope Benedict arrives to celebrate Vespers
Finbarr O'Reilly  /  Reuters
The faithful gather as sun bursts through dark thunderclouds during a heavy rainstorm moments after Pope Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate Vespers in Cameroon's capital Yaounde on Wednesday.
updated 3/19/2009 11:24:15 AM ET 2009-03-19T15:24:15

Pope Benedict XVI told Muslim leaders on Thursday that true religion rejects violence, and he held up peaceful coexistence between Christianity and Islam in Cameroon as "a beacon to other African nations."

In Cameroon's capital, a clapping, swaying crowd of 40,000 faithful from Africa's expanding, vibrant Catholic flock later welcomed him to a football stadium where he celebrated Mass. The open-air service was Benedict's first occasion as pope to be among a great crowd of faithful on the continent that is witnessing the church's biggest growth.

In the morning meeting with 22 representatives of Cameroon's sizable Muslim minority, Benedict said religion is the basis of human civilization and he returned to one of the key themes of his papacy, saying there is no incompatibility between faith and reason.

"Genuine religion ... stands at the base of any authentically human culture," he said. "It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith but also of right reason."

The pope said that "religion and reason mutually reinforce one another" and urged Catholics and Muslims to work together "to build a civilization of love."

Coexistence in Cameroon
Unlike in neighboring Nigeria, where religious strife has often broken into violence, Christians and Muslims largely coexist without problems in Cameroon, a situation that drew Benedict's praise.

"May the enthusiastic cooperation of Muslims, Catholics and other Christians in Cameroon, be a beacon to other African nations of the enormous potential of an inter-religious commitment to peace, justice and the common good," he said.

Video: Pope urges Muslims to reject violence The pope has often spoken of the need for religion to shun violence, but has refrained from pointing any finger at specific faiths since a 2006 speech delivered in Germany in which he linked Islam to violence.

Amid angry reactions from the Islamic world, Benedict expressed regret for any offense caused by his remarks and has since met several times with Muslim leaders from various countries.

'Cordial and friendly' meetings
Thursday's meeting with Muslim representatives at the Apostolic Nunciature, where Benedict has been lodging on his first African pilgrimage as pope, was closed to the press.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the atmosphere was "cordial and friendly" and that the Muslims issued a "warm greeting to the pope." Lombardi, who was at the meeting, said several of the Muslims leaders told Benedict "you are not alone."

Muslims make up about 22 percent of Cameroon's population; Roman Catholics account for 27 percent of the West African nation's people. Animists account for some 27 percent, while Protestants make up 18 percent.

Benedict, like his predecessor John Paul II, has set aside time in his foreign pilgrimages to meet with, or at least greet, representatives from various Christian communities as well as non-Christians.

After meeting with the Muslims, the pope went on to Yaounde's Amadou Ahidjo stadium to celebrate Mass.

He arrived in a bulletproof, glass-topped "pope mobile" and was driven all around the running track, bringing the huge crowd to its feet.

They clapped and swayed to traditional music and songs, and many wore flowing robes with writing in French that celebrated the pope's visit.

Before the visit, Benedict said he was traveling in Africa as a pilgrimage of peace, in hopes of inspiring faithful to work for social justice and fight the hunger and disease that afflict millions on the continent.

Since stepping off the papal plane on Tuesday, attention to Benedict's pilgrimage has been largely focused on the Vatican's refusal to advocate condoms as a way to help stop the spread of AIDS, which is ravaging Africa in a pandemic that affects millions.

On Wednesday, France and Germany sharply criticized Benedict's declaration aboard the papal plane that distributing condoms "increases" the AIDS problem.

The French Foreign Ministry said the statement could "endanger public health policies and the imperative to protect human life." The U.N. agency charged with fighting AIDS also spoke out in favor of condom use.

More on: Pope Benedict   |  AIDS

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Photos: Papal visit to Africa

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  1. Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Luanda, Angola, on Sunday, March 22. (Ciro Fusco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A girl who fainted is carried through the crowd at a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday in Luanda, Angola. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Angolan soldier on horseback helps control the crowd after Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass on Sunday in Angola. (Schalk Van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Onlookers scale a small hill to try to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday in Angola. The pontiff is on a six-day visit to Africa. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pope Benedict XVI arrives in a procession for Mass at the Cimangola open ground on the outskirts of Luanda, Angola, on Sunday. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A girl reacts as Pope Benedict XVI arrives at a gathering for young people in the city of Luanda, Angola, on Saturday, March 21. (Schalk Van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pope Benedict XVI meets with the faithful during his visit in Luanda, Angola, on Saturday. (L' Osservatore Romano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Thousands gather in Luanda, Angola, Saturday, awaiting an appearance by Pope Benedict XVI. (Ciro Fusco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pope Benedict XVI watches Angolan dancers performing on the podium of Coqueiros stadium in Luanada on Saturday. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pope Benedict XVI (in background) looks on as some twenty people representing three generations of the pygmies people present a dance for him, before he leaves the nunciature for Angola. (Osservatore Romano / pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Religious dignitaries wait for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI at the airport in Yaounde where flew to Angola for the next stage of his African tour on March 20. (Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Nuns from the St. John Community in Cameroon react as the plane carrying Pope Benedict XVI takes off, at the airport in Yaounde, Cameroonon on March 20. Pope Benedict XVI departed for Angola on the second leg of his first papal visit to Africa. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A woman carrying bread rolls on her head walks past a poster of Pope Benedict XVI in Luanda, Angola on March 20. (Themba Hadebe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pope Benedict XVI is welcomed by Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos as he arrives at Luanda International airport March 20. (Joao Relvas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Priests traditionally dressed attend a mass given by Pope Benedict XVI at the Amadou Ahidjo stadium in Yaounde on March 19. Pope Benedict XVI held the first giant mass of his Africa tour. (Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful as he celebrates a Mass in the Amadou Ahidjo stadium, in Yaounde, Cameroon, Thursday, March 19. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An African woman wears a cross outside of the Amadou Ahidjo stadium, where Pope Benedict XVI gave mass, in Yaounde on March 19. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A nun waits on the stands of the Amadou Ahidjo stadium for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI to celebrates a mass, in Yaounde, Cameroon, Thursday, March 19. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Faithful rejoice as the sun bursts through dark thunder clouds during a heavy rain storm moments after Pope Benedict XVI arrived at the basilica to celebrate Vespers in Cameroon's capital Yaounde on March 18. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Vespers at the Mary Queen of Apostles Basilica in Yaounde, Cameroon on March 18. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Pope Benedict XVI leaves on his popemobile after he celebrated a Vesper ceremony in the "Marie Reigne des Apotres", basilica, in Yaounde , Cameroon on March 18. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Crowds cheer and wave to Pope Benedict XVI as he leaves the airport in Yaounde, Cameroon Tuesday, March 17. The pope arrived to begin his first trip to Africa, the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic church. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. An African clergyman kisses Pope Benedict XVI's ring at the airport in Yaounde, Cameroon Tuesday, March 17. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A Cameroonian woman holds up a cloth patterned with portraits of Pope Benedict XVI and Cameroonian President Paul Biya at the airport in Yaounde on Tuesday, March 17. (Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd upon his arrival at Younde airport on March 17, 2009, on the first day of a six-day visit in Africa. Pope Benedict XVI brought the "Christian message of hope" to Africa as he arrived in Cameroon today at the start of his first visit to the world's poorest continent as pontiff. AFP PHOTO/ CHRISTOPHE SIMON (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images) (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Sister Virginia Amena grins moments after Pope Benedict XVI shook her hand and gave her his blessing upon his arrival in Cameroon's capital Yaounde, Tuesday, March 17. The pope is seeking support for Africa during the world economic crisis, hoping to encourage peace and help tackle corruption. • Full story: NBC's George Lewis profiles Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., one of the missing soldiers who was killed by insurgents in Iraq. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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