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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 18:16 GMT
Liberia's outspoken bishop
Catholic mission in Tubmanburg
The Catholic Church delivers much-needed services

The man at the centre of a row between one of Liberia's MPs and the Catholic Church is Bishop Michael Francis, an outspoken critic of the authorities.

God knows the doers

Michael Francis
Bishop Francis has said that the killings, 10 years ago, of five Catholic nuns in Monrovia, were by elements of the former National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).

The rebel movement was led by incumbent President Charles Taylor and was the largest and most powerful armed group in the country's civil war which ended with the election of Taylor as President in 1997.

MP Sando Johnson, himself a member of the NPFL, has denied any involvement in the killings.

He in turn accused the bishop of conniving with West African peacekeepers to kill the nuns.

The representative also described Bishop Francis as "an immoral person" who, Johnson alleged, has failed to correct homosexuality in the Catholic Church.

A protest action by other Church leaders in solidarity with bishop disrupted schools and hospitals, with Monrovia grinding to a halt for 48 hours.

No political animal

Bishop Michael Francis has never been in national politics, he says, having been God's servant since the age of 17.

But it is almost impossible for his admirers to believe that the soft-spoken Catholic father does not have some form of political orientation.

He is known for his candid statements on issues of public concern, and for telling national leaders where they are going wrong.

The result? He has never been a Liberian president's friend.

Bishop Michael Francis (Pic:
Bishop Francis has often criticised the government

Invite Bishop Francis to the podium for an opening prayer, and newspaper journalists will rush there, anticipating the next day's headlines.

The first thing that greeted me when I entered the Monrovia Snapper Hill District office of the bishop was a rectangular glass frame of the portraits of the five slain nuns.

There is a solemnly-worded caption beside the smiling faces which reads: "We are called to a radical love, that is life poured out for all in adoration, in sharing and in solidarity, even to the point of bloodshed."

To say the US sisters were dear to the heart of the Catholic Church in Liberia is an understatement.

Religious education

Bishop Francis often gets disturbed to the point of blaming himself for having allowed the ladies to come to work in war-ravaged Liberia in the first place.

No wonder, therefore, that the normally tolerant prelate has lost his temper in recent days over allegations that he had a hand in the killings of the nuns. "God knows the doers," he told me.

Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis was born in 1936 in Kpakala Town, a Gola-speaking hamlet in Liberia's north-western Bomi County, which is also the home of his accuser, Representative Sando Johnson.

I thank God I have a good disposition

Michael Francis
He began his education at Saint Theresa's Convent in Monrovia in 1938, the same year he was baptised.

He then attended seminaries in Ghana, where he studied philosophy and theology.

He read bio-ethics and medical ethics at Georgetown University, and Ecumenical Theology at Howard University in the United States.

He was ordained deacon 40 years ago at Harper, Liberia.

Open critic

Bishop Francis is a high school principal and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Liberia.

He also chairs a number of national, regional and continental bishops' conferences.

Bishop Francis has published 75 pastoral letters in which he has spoken out bitterly, mainly against immoral practices, injustices, abuse of human and fundamental rights and corruption and preached national reconciliation and democratic tenets.

President Charles Taylor
Taylor's government has rejected Francis's criticisms

The 66-year-old played football, volleyball and basketball until 1951 when he broke a leg.

Bishop Francis speaks the mano, gio and vai languages of Liberia and does not feel he has eaten anything if it is not with a "cassava leaf" or "palm butter" sauce.

I asked him what makes him sad and angry, and he replied: "Nothing. I thank God I have a good disposition."

When he was ordained, Bishop Francis had a wish: "Lord, give me souls, take the rest," and that is exactly, he says, what God has done for him.

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See also:

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