YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Religion must reject violence, Pope Benedict XVI told Muslim leaders Thursday before celebrating an open-air Mass in front of thousands and delivering a message of hope for Africa's expanding, vibrant Catholic flock.
In Cameroon's capital of Yaounde, a clapping, swaying crowd of 40,000 welcomed Benedict to a sports stadium _ his first occasion as pope to be among a great crowd of faithful on the continent that is witnessing the church's biggest growth.
In his homily, Benedict expressed compassion for African children being kidnapped and forced to fight by rebel groups trying to carve up parts of Africa.
"God loves you, he has not forgotten you," he said in a message to these children.
Child soldiers have been used by rebels in eastern Congo and by Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. An estimated 3,500 children are still with armed groups in Congo alone.
Earlier, the pope met with 22 representatives of Cameroon's sizable Muslim minority and noted that religion is the basis of human civilization. He also 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 "religion and reason mutually reinforce one another" and urged Catholics and Muslims to work together "to build a civilization of love."
Christians and Muslims largely coexist without problems in Cameroon, unlike in neighboring Nigeria, where religious strife has often exploded into violence.
"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," Benedict said.
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 in which he linked Islam to violence.
After an angry reaction from the Islamic world, Benedict expressed regret for any offense caused by his remarks and has since met several times with Muslim leaders from several countries. He is scheduled to visit a mosque in Jordan next month.
Thursday's meeting with Muslims at the Apostolic Nunciature, where Benedict has been staying 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 Muslim representatives issued a "warm greeting to the pope."
Muslims make up about 22 percent of Cameroon's population, Catholics and Animists account for 27 percent each and Protestants make up 18 percent of the West African nation's people.
Benedict arrived in Amadou Ahidjo stadium for Mass in a bulletproof, glass-topped "popemobile" and was driven all around the running track, bringing the huge crowd to its feet. Thousands more ringed the stadium outside.
The crowd inside clapped and swayed to traditional music and songs. Many wore flowing robes with writing in French that celebrated the pope's visit. Some young people wore jerseys of the European clubs where some of Cameroon's soccer heroes play.
In his homily, Benedict urged Africans to "hope against all hope" for their future, to reject materialism and to hold onto traditional values.
The pope drew loud cheers when his speech turned to orphans, poor and abused children and to those forced "to join paramilitary forces that are terrorizing some countries."
The Vatican later released a document suggesting that Christians in Africa can be agents of change to fight problems ranging from corruption to "the thirst for power." The document also said "outside forces" in complicity with Africans were fueling wars to sell arms and exploit the continent's natural resources.
Since stepping off the papal plane 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.
Benedict's declaration on the plane that distributing condoms "increases" the AIDS problem has drawn international criticism from governments and organizations that fight the disease.
In one of his appearances Thursday, Benedict visited a center for the sick and infirm to express his compassion for those suffering from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The pope did not mention the Vatican stance against condoms.