Angola cardinal worried by spread of sects

Luanda, Angola - Angola's government should crack down on the spread of illegal religious sects to prevent them from exploiting the poor, the African nation's leading Catholic cleric said on Wednesday.

"We are talking about institutions that are taking advantage of the misery of the people to take away their money with empty promises and lies," Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento told Reuters in an interview.

"Authorities have to tackle this problem with more urgency and determination."

His comments follow the death last week of a 28-year-old sect member prevented from seeking medical treatment when she fell ill, and the rescue of 40 children from two other religious groups that accused them of possessing evil powers.

Police said the children, aged between one month and 15 years, had been physically and emotionally abused.

Between 60 and 70 percent of Angolans claim to be Catholic Christians, and the country is home to Mama Muxima, one of the largest Catholic pilgrimage sites in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Catholic Church has grown since the government abandoned Marxism in the early 1990s, but is increasingly being challenged by Protestant evangelical churches and non-denominational sects, often supported by poor people lacking jobs and education.

Many of the sects mix traditional African beliefs in witchcraft with elements of Christianity and some operate illegally. The government requires all churches and sects to register and provide background information.

Some 900 religious groups are waiting to be registered.

Authorities have launched a campaign to stamp out illegal sects in the capital Luanda and provinces bordering Democratic Republic of Congo where witchcraft is believed to be widespread.

The Angolan Mana Church, an evangelical church, was shut down at the beginning of 2008 after it was alleged to have insulted the government and disturbed public order.

Nascimento said the flourishing of illegal sects showed the Catholic Church needed to do more to reach out to "lost souls".

"The positive side of this phenomenon is that it shows there is an increasing thirst for God," he said. "But those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water."