NEWS STORY: Pope seeks to align church with freedom during Nigeria visit

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY _ Pope John Paul II will be making his second trip of the year to a totalitarian regime when he arrives in Nigeria on Saturday (March 21) for a three-day pilgrimage.

And like his visit to Cuba in January, the stakes are high _ not just for the fortunes of the church in Africa’s most populous nation but for imprisoned political dissidents who are hoping the pontiff will lend his moral weight to their quest for freedom.”I think there is a tremendous expectation that the pope will do what he did in Cuba _ talk about democracy and human rights, and ask publicly for the release of political prisoners,”said Learned Dees, the Africa project officer at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, who recently returned from a trip to Nigeria.

The Vatican has said publicly the trip is intended solely as pastoral, and to beatify the Rev. Michael Iwene Tansi, who died in 1964. He will become the first Nigerian blessed, the first step toward sainthood.

But the broader religious and political questions in a country run by military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in 1993, are inescapable.

Church officials in Nigeria said the pope will surely press human rights issues in his meeting with Abacha on Saturday, much as he did with Castro in Cuba.

The tactic is particularly important in Nigeria, where the majority of the newest converts are not Muslim or Catholic but Pentecostal and members of other Protestant movements.”I expect him to speak out on human rights, which is precisely what we have been doing,”the archbishop of Abuja, the Rev. John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, said in an interview.”It will strengthen the church and it might influence the judgments of those in power.” The pope, he said,”is quite familiar with the situation in Nigeria. He knows our strengths, our weaknesses, as well as the prospects for the nation.” In large measure, Nigeria’s future is in the hands of Abacha, who nullified elections in 1993 and threw the apparent winner, Moshood Abiola, in jail, where the millionaire businessman remains. Since then, he has imprisoned hundreds of dissidents, many of whom have died behind bars.

Last November, Abacha promised to release some political detainees but none has been freed.

In 1995, he ordered the execution of activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other dissidents, despite worldwide pleas for clemency, including one from Pope John Paul II.

The trip marks the second time the pope has visited the country. His first pilgrimage, in 1982, was met by enthusiastic crowds. But tensions were clearly evident between the Catholic leader and the Muslim population. The pope was forced to cancel a scheduled meeting with Muslim clergy who threatened to boycott the session.

Some prominent Muslim political and religious leaders said at the time there was no room in Nigeria for Catholicism or Christianity in general.

On Sunday, the pope is again scheduled to meet with Muslim leaders.”I hope it happens,”said a cautious Onaiyekan.

The pope is also set to celebrate two outdoor Masses. The beatification of Tansi, in Onitsha, is expected to draw 2 million pilgrims.

For the Roman Catholic Church, Nigeria poses perhaps the most towering challenge in Africa. Only 10 percent of Nigeria’s 112 million people are Catholic. About half are Muslim, and the remainder are Christians and members of other African spiritual faiths like animism.

By 2050, demographers say, Nigeria’s population could reach 530 million, a mind-boggling growth rate that would make it the world’s third most populous nation, behind India and China.

The church’s greatest strength may be derived from the worsening economic situation, which is fueled by the drop in oil prices that Nigeria depends on to power its economy.

Many people have turned to religion in the face of economic deprivation and widespread anger at the government, Dees said.

This has served numerous Pentecostal movements cropping up throughout the country. However, the church, too, may be well positioned, Dees said, because it offers the finest schools and social services in the country that many Nigerians are seeking.

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Abacha, who has faced limited economic sanctions from the European Union and the United States since the Saro-Wiwa execution, has promised Democratic elections in August. But human rights groups have called the process absurd because four of the five parties running support his government.”I think it’s a farce,”Dees said,”and that’s certainly what the people in the country believe.” Abacha’s supporters, much like Castro’s, have said they believe a papal visit will burnish their leader’s image in the international community.

But the potential payoff of the visit could backfire unless Abacha takes steps toward improving basic human rights. After the pope’s trip to Cuba, Castro made good on a pledge to release political prisoners, though not all.

Dees and others say that if Abacha has any hope of improving his pariah image, he will be under pressure to do the same, if not more.

DEA END HEILBRONNER

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