Africa, Headlines

RELIGION: An African Successor for the “Symbol of Unity”?

Moyiga Nduru*

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 2 2005 (IPS) - Even as Roman Catholics around the world mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, the attention of many is turning to the future – and the question of who will succeed the Polish cleric as Bishop of Rome.

With support for Catholicism registering its strongest growth in Africa, certain Vatican observers believe the answer to this question is clear: the new pope, they argue, should come from this continent.

The number of Catholic adherents in Africa increased by 4.5 percent in 2003, according to the 2005 Pontifical Yearbook, while the number of Catholics in Europe remained constant. In Asia, there was a 2.2 percent increase, and in the Americas a 1.2 percent rise. Africa presently accounts for 13.2 percent of the world’s Catholics.

Chirevo Kwenda, head of the department of religious studies at the University of Cape Town, says the election of an African pope is “long overdue”. The last African cleric to lead the Catholic Church was Gelasius the First, from 492 to 496.

And, says David Monyae, a lecturer in international relations at the Johannesburg-based University of the Witwatersrand, “We have a high-level African in the Vatican.”

This was in reference to Cardinal Francis Arinze, a 72-year-old Nigerian who served as a close advisor to the deceased Pope.

Arinze is said to be an authority on Islam. This may play in his favour when the 117 cardinals who are entitled to take part in a papal election decide who should lead the Catholic Church, at a time when militant Islam is on the rise in certain parts of the world.

However, Arinze is also considered a staunch conservative on religious matters, who would doubtless uphold John Paul’s rejection of homosexual unions, contraception, divorce and abortion.

The prospect of having these views extended through another papacy would not be universally welcomed, given that condoms are seen by many as being of key importance in the fight against AIDS. The Vatican advocates abstinence to combat the pandemic.

“We have always disagreed with the Catholic perception. Anyone discouraging the use of condoms is not realistic,” Odongo Odiyo, chairman of the Kenya Medical Association’s committee on HIV/AIDS, told IPS.

“People practise sex whether they are (members of a) church or not, whether Catholics or not. In the fight against HIV/AIDS, we have to find a way of helping people, and one way is encouraging the use of condoms,” he said, adding that certain Catholic priests in Kenya were believed to have departed from the Vatican’s teachings on this matter, distributing condoms to assist in fighting HIV.

Africa currently has the world’s largest population of HIV-positive persons: about 25 million.

Peter Gichangi, a lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Nairobi, said the Catholic stand on contraception was also counter-productive while efforts were under way to extend family planning initiatives in Africa.

“From a medical point of view, to prevent pregnancy – including unwanted pregnancy – one must use family planning, including condoms. Discouraging these means an escalated population growth and unwanted pregnancies that have caused women to resort to abortion,” he told IPS.

Women’s rights activists have long argued that giving women the power to limit and space their pregnancies is central to improving the social and economic standing of women – and their families.

However, others see matters differently.

“Giving condoms to people is like giving them a certificate to hell: it is telling them to disregard morality and go on with fornication,” Catholic priest Emmanuel Ngugi, who is in charge of the Holy Family Basilica in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, said in an interview with IPS.

“The Pope spoke candidly against condoms in 1995. He said condoms do not solve problems,” Ngugi added. “He told people to trust in God rather than condoms, to uphold morality. I hold the same view as well: it is high time we take what the Pope was saying about morality seriously.”

The heated debate on these controversial issues notwithstanding, John Paul also spoke out on other matters of concern to Africa.

During the first Easter mass of the new millennium, he appealed for an end to racism and xenophobia. A year earlier, he spoke out against the war in Angola, reportedly accusing those involved in the conflict of selfishness.

The Luanda government is accused of presiding over massive fraud in Angola’s oil industry – even as the majority of citizens live in conditions of desperate poverty. Rebels in the Southern African country financed their offensive with illicitly-mined diamonds, consequently referred to as “blood diamonds”.

When rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo barred the Bishop of Bukavu from returning to his congregation in 2000, John Paul condemned their action before thousands during a weekly audience at St Peter’s.

“When he came to Kenya in 1995 he preached peace, saying without peace there can never be development. He told Kenyans to shun tribalism, which caused clashes in 1992,” Ngugi said, describing the deceased Pope as “a symbol of unity”. Thousands of people were killed in the skirmishes that occurred in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province in 1992.

John Paul’s visits to Kenya and other African countries formed part of a gruelling travel schedule that took him to over a 100 states in the bid to provide active spiritual leadership to the world’s one billion Catholics.

After John Paul took over as head of the Holy See in 1978, the number of Catholics in Africa increased by almost 150 percent to 137.5 million, according to the Catholic News Service.

(* With additional reporting by Joyce Mulama in Nairobi.)

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