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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 April, 2005, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Nigeria: Launch pad for next pope?

By David Loyn
BBC Developing World correspondent in Abuja, Nigeria

Cardinal Arinze is the most likely candidate from Africa for the papacy
It took a seven-year-old boy, Etienne Benokagbue, to articulate the feelings of a whole congregation.

When he prayed that those choosing the next Pope would have God's guidance but may they "choose an African Pope", there was a short stunned silence in the packed cathedral in Abuja, before a spontaneous round of applause.

The cathedral, currently being rebuilt in a major expansion programme, was full to bursting for the Requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II, with those who could not get in kneeling in the cement dust outside.

There is vigorous growth in Catholicism here, despite considerable competition from other non-conformist churches.

All Nigerians believe in some force outside themselves, with more than 90% regularly attending a place of worship, according to a BBC poll.

This makes it the most religious country in the world, and there are signs everywhere advertising the new churches which spring up every week.

Leading Catholics do not see this as a threat. One of the senior figures in the Church here, Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, said that his favourite story in the Bible is the one about Joseph's coat of many colours - meaning that any church will do.

He said that many Catholics might go to early morning Mass, and then go on for the dancing and exuberant worship at a Pentecostal service, much as you might go to a Jazz club in the West.

There is even significant crossover with the majority Muslim community, with a prominent Catholic Bishop coming from a Muslim family as just one example.

The first 10 messages that Father Kukah received in commiseration on the death of the Pope were from Muslim leaders.

African influence

The late Pope was "revered and adored" in Nigeria, according to Father Kukah. And Africa's most populous country is demanding that its voice is heard in the conclave to choose the next pope, even if its favoured son, Cardinal Francis Arinze, does not become Pope himself.

I don't see why there is so much obsession with promoting condoms, and very little attention being paid to the inequalities that exist in the world
Father Matthew Hassan Kukah
Pope John Paul II did much to increase African influence in the Church. When he became Pope in 1978, African representation was just 1% in the College of Cardinals. Now it is 11% - still much less than in Europe, but it is making its voice heard in another way too.

African demands for poverty to be finally dealt with are now at the top of the political agenda worldwide.

The G8 group of the world's richest countries and the UN itself are both committed to major summit meetings on poverty this year.

Father Kukah said that the Catholic Church's demands for justice and an end to global inequality are their key concerns, not the family morality issues of birth control and abortion which are often characterised from outside as being a unique Catholic obsession.

He says that the West does not understand Africa: "I don't see why there is so much obsession with promoting condoms, and very little attention being paid to the inequalities that exist in the world, whether it's the debt question as it relates to Africa, or a range of other issues.

"Western media and Western society don't seem to appreciate the complex issues in Africa."

Moral divide

Catholics here believe that in the pursuit of individual personal and material interest, the West has lost something.

Rose Benokagbue, Etienne's mother, says "Perhaps the Western world will learn from an African Pope, and be helped in maintaining in some of those values that they have lost."

Catholic mourner
Pope John Paul II was mourned by the large Catholic population

But there is no denying that despite political and social radicalism, the Church here is profoundly conservative in terms of private morality.

Homosexuality is condemned, and condoms rejected as a solution to the Aids crisis, despite the UN saying Nigeria has the highest number of people - 3.6 million - infected with HIV in west Africa. The Church puts this down to poverty, not to the difficulties of obtaining condoms.

Dr Monye Chinedu, the Assistant National HIV/Aids co-ordinator of the Catholic Church, says that if condoms were "foolproof" then he would recommend them.

But since they are not 100%, he says, particularly when not used properly, then it is wrong to promote them.

Dr Chinedu denies that this is condemning people to death.

"I would rather say that promoting the use of condoms kills people."

Instead the Catholic Church promotes abstinence, no sex outside marriage, as a cost-free 'foolproof' method of not spreading HIV infections.

Given the very different moral values now prevalent in the West, this could make an African Pope less likely, despite Cardinal Francis Arinze's considerable qualifications in many other areas.


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