Pope Urges Nigerians to Live in Solidarity, Honor Human Rights

Article excerpt

Visiting Nigeria just four months before elections aimed at ending military rule, Pope John Paul II called for the release of political prisoners and repeatedly urged military ruler Gen. Sani Abacha to release his grip on the country and allow Nigerians to institute democratic reforms. The pope also emphasized the need for peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims as part of efforts to build a new Nigeria.

An estimated 1 million worshipers turned out for a Mass on March 22 in Onitsha, the nation's Catholic stronghold, where the pope beatified Fr. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, a Nigerian priest who died in 1964.

During his March 21-23 visit, the pope praised Nigerian soldiers for their role in restoring democracy in the West African nations of Liberia and Sierra Leone and said that democracy should now be given a chance in their own country.

He especially thanked soldiers for their role in rescuing Catholic missionaries trapped, during conflicts in Sierra Leone in February. The pope met for a half hour with Abacha to talk about human rights.

At, the Mass in Onitsha, the 77-year-old pope spoke in a strong, clear voice, reading his speeches in English. He walked with the aid of an ebony and ivory cane he received the day of his arrival as a gift from the iron-fisted Abacha, who took power in a 1993 coup and is noted for harsh treatment of dissidents. Abacha has promised to hand power over to a civilian government in October, following general elections in August.

Just two months after a successful appeal for release of political prisoners in Cuba, the pope called for the release of 60 political prisoners in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. The U.S. State Department estimates that Abacha's government is holding between 100 and 200 political detainees, including labor leaders and journalists who have written articles critical of his rule.

The military government had reportedly detained dozens of advocates of democracy in advance of the pope's visit.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the list of 60 prisoners included all who have been the object of appeals by international rights groups, including Chief Moshood K.O. Abiola, elected president in 1993 before Abacha's military coup.

As the pope left the country March 23, he told Nigerians, "The time is ripe for your nation to gather its material riches and spiritual energies so that, everything that causes division may be left behind and replaced by unity, solidarity and peace. …