Pope Benedict XVI praised the Australian government

Sydney, July 17, 208 - Pope Benedict XVI praised the Australian government Thursday for its "courageous' apology to the country's indigenous Aborigines for past injustices, saying it offered hope to all the world's disadvantaged peoples.

The remarks came as the pope began a busy day of public appearances expected to draw half a million people to Sydney's streets and its famous harbor.

At an official welcoming ceremony, Benedict said Australia's original inhabitants were an essential part of the country's cultural landscape, and cited their plight since the first British convict settlers arrived 220 years ago.

"Thanks to the Australian government's courageous decision to acknowledge the injustices committed against the indigenous peoples in the past, concrete steps are now being taken to achieve reconciliation based on mutual respect," Benedict said.

It was right to try to raise Aborigines out of poverty and raise their health and education standards to the equal of other Australians, he said.

In February, new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to Aborigines as one of his first official acts after being elected to power. He has made closing a gap between indigenous people and other Australians a priority of his government.

Aborigines are an often-marginalized minority of about 450,000 in a population of 21 million. They are the country's poorest group, with the highest rates of unemployment, illiteracy, incarceration and alcohol abuse, and a life expectancy 17 years shorter than other Australians.

In 2001, John Paul II issued a formal apology to the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands for injustices perpetrated by Catholic missionaries.

In his remarks, Benedict also praised Australia for contributing to peacekeeping operations, and touched on the problem of global warming — an issue he has signaled he wants Catholics to think more about.

"With many thousands of young people visiting Australia at this time, it is appropriate to reflect upon he kind of world we are handing to the future generations," Benedict , who has been dubbed the "green pope" by some observers.

The 81-year-old pontiff emerged Thursday from three days of seclusion — a short holiday to help him recover from the more than 20-hour trip from Rome — to join World Youth Day, a six-day event designed to inspire a new generation of Catholics.

More than 200,000 pilgrims have registered for the event, many from overseas. They thronged the city Thursday, bolstered by thousands of Sydneysiders who lined the harbor and city streets to see the pope pass by.

He ended the respite with a visit Wednesday from some of Australia's exotic animals. Wildlife officers from the city zoo brought a red-necked wallaby, a spiny echidna, a blue-tongued lizard and other beasts to the retreat after the pope expressed interest in seeing some Australian animals. Vactican-released video showed a smiling Benedict stroking a koala and scratching it behind the ear as it was held by a ranger.

After his official welcome from dignitaries including Rudd at Government House in Sydney, Benedict was driven across the city's landmark harbor bridge to a kneel in prayer at a chapel devoted to Mary MacKillop, who many Catholics here hope will be named as Australia's first saint during the pope's visit. She is celebrated for her work caring for children last century.

Later, Benedict was given a ceremonial welcome by Aboriginal elders and a group of dancers of the Gadigal people. The dancers, their bodies painted in white ochre and wearing animals pelts against a brisk winter chill, shook eucalyptus fronds as a symbol of cleansing and good fortune as a didgerdoo played.

The pope then boarded a boat for a slow procession through the harbor. Surrounded by police runabouts and followed by a flotilla of private craft, the pope's large cruiser pasted the Sydney's Opera house to dock at a former cargo wharf where Benedict will deliver an address to a huge crowd of pilgrims. He was due later to drive through downtown in the popemobile — a trip that has virtually shut down parts of the city.

The contents of the pope's address have not been revealed by the Vatican, though it is expected to be significant. During the flight from Rome to Sydney, Benedict told reporters he was concerned about global warming and that he would seek to heal some wounds caused by sexual abuse by clergy — a scandal that has dogged the church in recent years.

Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, on Wednesday would not be pinned down on when the pope would speak about the sexual abuse scandal but suggested it may be Saturday.

AP

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