Pope Benedict XVI announced Sunday he will make his first visit to Africa as pontiff next year as he formally closed a synod of Catholic bishops, lamenting the absence there of representatives from China.
Later he appealed before thousands of pilgrims to the international community to protect the rights of Christian minorities who, he said, were being increasingly victimised, particularly in Iraq and India.
Benedict told bishops in an address wrapping the three-week synod, devoted to the "word of God", that he would attend ceremonies in Cameroon and Angola next March.
He will attend the African episcopal conference in Cameroon to prepare for a second African bishops' synod to take place in Rome next October, and "from there, if it pleases God, I will go to Angola to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the evangelisation of that country," Benedict said.
The pope has summoned African bishops to a synod devoted to reconciliation, justice and peace to be held in the Vatican in October next year with the aim of "giving a new impetus to evangelisation" and promoting "reconciliation and peace" on the world's poorest continent.
A previous synod on Africa was held in 1994 on the initiative of Pope John Paul II.
In his concluding address to the synod Benedict said his thoughts went especially to the bishops of mainland China who could not be represented at the assembly.
He said he had asked God "to give them the joy, the strength and apostolic zeal to lead with wisdom and foresight the Catholic community in China which is so dear to us."
China and the Vatican have not had diplomatic relations since 1951 and the bishops of the underground Catholic church are unable freely to take part in the various works and meetings of the Church.
Later, in the presence of thousands of pilgrims in St Peter's Square, he called on civil and religious leaders to carry out significant gestures of friendship and consideration towards Christian minorities and other religions in countries where they faced persecution.
He drew attention to "certain countries of the east, where Christians are the victims of intolerance, of cruel violence and where they are killed, threatened or forced to abandon their homes."
"I am thinking above all at this moment of Iraq and India," he added.
Almost 2,300 Christian familes have fled the northern Iraqi city of Mossul since the beginning of the month while in the eastern Indian state of Orissa 60 people have died, according to church authorities.
The visit to Africa will be the 81-year-old pontiff's 11th trip outside Italy.
Africa plays a key role in the future of the Roman Catholic church as it is the area where the number of the faithful is growing most rapidly.
On a number of occasions Benedict has expressed his worries about Africa, a continent "where Europe has exported not only faith in Christ but also all sorts of vices, the sense of corruption, violence."AFP