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Papal visit proceeding to troubled Africa; may heighten tensions with Sudan's Muslims.

NEW YORK -- When John Paul II visits Africa again in early February, he will find a continent in turmoil.

And his planned stopover in Sudan, announced by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls in late December, may well heighten tensions between the local Roman Catholic Church and the Islamic fundamentalists who rule that wartorn, famine-wracked northeast African nation.

Most of the pontiffs eight-day trip -- his 57th foreign pilgrimage since becoming head of the world's 950 million Catholics a decade and a half ago -- will be spent in Benin and Uganda, where many expect him to announce the date for convening an African Synod of Bishops planned since 1989.

His one-day visit to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum was planned in part to honor the recent beatification of Sudanese Sister Josephine Bhakita. But during the brief stopover, the 72-year-old pontiff is expected to meet with Sudan's Catholic bishops and to celebrate an open-air Mass in a refugee camp for those fleeing the brutal civil war in southern Sudan. The war -- a result of regional economic neglect and political repression by the predominantly Arab and Islamic North -- broke out anew in 1983 after a decade of relative peace.

In late December, the Khartoum government said it would allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to resume emergency relief aid to famine and war victims in southern Sudan, previously suspended because of alleged ICRC links to the rebel SPLA movement.

To date, according to U.N. sources, as many as half a million Sudanese may have died, and four million people have been turned into refugees inside and outside their homeland, because of drought and war-induced famine.

Beleaguered Catholics

Sudan is the site of perhaps the bitterest confrontation between Islam and Christianity in Africa today. A Vatican statement said the papal visit is intended to "comfort Sudan's ecclesiastical community."

The papal visit will be a welcome boost to the beleaguered Roman Catholic community. Sudanese Catholics have faced increasing harassment, severe restrictions on pastoral work and church agencies, and government seizure of schools and other church property since Sudan's Islamic fundamentalist government seized power in June 1989 and officially imposed Islamic law in 1991 (NCR, Nov. 6, 1992).

Christians and followers of African traditional religions, most of them blacks from Sudan's southern region, together constitute about 30 percent of Sudan's people. During an earlier African trip last February, the pope appealed for tolerance between Christians and Muslims on the continent. But Islamic restrictions on non-Muslim religions have steadily risen in the Sudan.

Early in 1992, government security officials seized a pastoral letter by Sudan's Catholic bishops protesting the persecution of non-Muslims. Starting in late November, according to the Rome-based Comboni Fathers, a law now bars stores from opening if "the name of the store does not reflect the [Islamic] faith, the history and the cultural tradition of the country."

During an October ad limina visit to Rome by Sudan's bishops, the Holy See publicly condemned growing civil-rights abuses and denial of religious freedoms by the Sudanese authorities, citing specific acts of discrimination against that nation's Catholic minority and other non-Muslims. Several Sudanese bishops have launched an effort to persuade Western governments to back direct U.N. intervention in southern Sudan to halt human-rights abuses and ensure delivery of food aid.

Africa in crisis

The pope's visit comes at a time of extensive political and economic turmoil across the African continent:

* After three years of vicious civil war, Liberia is still "disrupted and torn about by insane and fratricidal battles," the pope lamented during his Christmas Day remarks.

In late October, he condemned the deaths of five Adorers of the Blood of Christ Order "barbarically" killed by rebel troops in the Liberian capital (NCR, Nov. 13, 1992). Just before Christmas the bodies of two of them -- Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra, 69, and Mary Joel Kolmer, 58 -- were finally recovered and identified.

* The pope's Christmas message also noted continuing efforts to bring lasting peace to Mozambique and Angola. While still wracked by a deadly drought that has also affected neighboring Zimbabwe and South Africa, Mozambique appears to be moving toward peace, enabling expanded emergency-relief operations to reach affected areas, after an agreement brokered in great part by Catholic diplomatic efforts.

* Angola, however, seems to be sliding once again toward civil war. The Angolan rebel group UNITA has refused to accept its loss of U.N.-monitored democratic elections in late September. Its charges of massive fraud have been firmly rejected by international observers.

Renewed fighting in October between government and rebel forces left more than 2,000 people dead. In early November, the pope, who had visited Angola five months earlier, appealed to all sides for peace.

But by late December, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi refused to meet an Organization for African Unity peace mission in the Angolan capital and was reportedly en route to his former military base in southern Angola.

* In early December Pope John Paul, who had opposed U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf, publicly backed the sending of U.S. troops to Somalia, saying the international community had a duty to intervene. But the mandate for the U.S. presence remains mired in controversy, and daily killings are again rising: A British UNICEF worker was killed in early January in southern Somalia.

* In December, Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko again tried to derail democratization of his poverty-stricken nation. He attempted to dismiss Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi and insisted that Mobutists be included in a new government.

Catholic Archbishop Monsengwo Pasinye, elected president of the High Council of the Republic (Zaire's transitional parliament) by the National Conference, quickly denounced Mobutu for reneging on his agreement to abide by conference decisions. On Dec. 18, 1992, several Zairians were reported killed by pro-Mobutu troops.

African synod

Africa church observers here contend that such daily and palpable issues of justice and peace are what most African Catholics want to see reflected -- and some fear will not be -- in the agenda of the forthcoming African synod, first announced in 1989 and likely to be held this year or next.

African clergy and laity fear that the synod will turn out to be, in the words of Zairian theologian Marcel Tshiamalenga Ntumba, little more than a "Roman synod on Africa." Many reportedly dislike the Vatican's paternalistic style, closed preparatory process and efforts to exclude supporters of an African council, where the program would be determined by the African church itself, from the preparatory stage.

Other African clergy have complained at the short time allowed discussion of the Lineamenta and Instrumentum Laboris (working papers) at the local level, especially given the meager means of communication and transportation across much of Africa.

Some warn that holding a continent-wide meeting when, as a Ethiopian Catholic newsletter noted, there had been "very little discussion or writing on the synod, and . . . almost nothing at grass-roots levels," will make many Africans think the synod has been -- as so much else in their history -- imposed from outside and from above.

Pope urges faithful to repudiate racism welcome all cultures

NEW YORK -- The pope's pre-Christmas visit to a soup kitchen for Rome's poor, run by the Catholic charity Caritas, highlighted another threat to Africans: anti-immigrant violence in Europe by right-wing groups that blame them for their economic ills.

The pope had tea with Valentino Nogali, a Somali recently attacked and set afire by Italian youths called Naziskins. He later urged the faithful to "repudiate every form of racism and xenophobia and transmit a permanent message of respect and welcome to people of different cultures and nationalities."
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Author:Collins, Carole
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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