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Thousands at Pope’s Nigerian Mass

March 22, 1998

ONITSHA, Nigeria (AP) _ Braving sweltering heat, Pope John Paul II issued a powerful call Sunday for change in this country in the grip of military rule, telling Nigerians to rid their society of ``everything that offends human dignity or violates human rights.″

Hundreds of thousands turned out for the papal Mass in the country’s Roman Catholic heartland, a rare day of celebration for a hard-pressed people.

The pope preached from an altar beneath a thatched hut that faced a red dustbowl and beatified a priest, Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi.

Since John Paul arrived Saturday for a three-day visit, his message to the military regime that seized power in 1993 coup has been strikingly direct. The pope kept up the pressure in Sunday’s Mass.

``All Nigerians must work to rid society of everything that offends the dignity of the human person or violates human rights,″ he said. ``This means reconciling differences, overcoming ethnic rivalries and injecting honesty, efficiency and competence in the art of governing.″

Starting before dawn, hundreds of thousands of people _ on foot, perched on motorbikes and crammed into buses _ converged on the Mass site, an airfield on the outskirts of Onitsha.

The road to the airport was lined with huge portraits of Tansi and the pope, and blocked by a miles-long traffic jam. In one battered old Mercedes, a group of nuns stopped to say some prayers and set out on foot for the final leg of the journey.

One after another, people praised the pope and urged him to help free their country from the shackles of a military junta that jails its opponents, kills at will and stifles opposition.

``My prayers are that he will bring us peace,″ said 23-year-old Ugwuanyi Evenin who walked at least 10 miles with her father to see the pope. ``This is twice he comes to Nigeria, that means he likes the Nigerian people.″

Noting the military junta’s promise to hold elections later this year, John Paul said ``there was no place″ for abuse of power, misuse of authority, or arbitrarily excluding individuals or groups from politics.

The promise of free elections has been met by wide skepticism. The last national elections, in 1993, were voided by the military government and the apparent winner, Moshood Abiola, was jailed and remains in custody.

John Paul flew here from Abuja, the capital, his helicopter setting off a swirl of red dust over well-wishers. The 77-year-old pope, beset by ailments in recent years, walked slowly in the West African heat _ around 100 degrees _ and 95-percent humidity.

He looked tired, but smiled and waved to the crowd.

The crowd sang and danced and punched fists in the air in joyous expectation of hearing words of comfort and inspiration. The pope did not disappoint them, continuing his strong advocacy of human rights.

John Paul set down his agenda immediately upon arriving in Nigeria, first in an address at the airport welcoming ceremony and then in a meeting with Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha.

Vatican officials pressed for the release of some 60 prominent Nigerians _ leading political opponents and journalists, hoping the government would show some leniency, as happened in Cuba, where Fidel Castro released 299 prisoners after the pontiff’s January visit.

Abacha spokesman David Attah said Sunday that he could not comment on the release request, but papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Nigerian officials had agreed to consider it.

The Sunday New Nigerian, the official newspaper for northern Nigeria, ran an editorial saying ``We appeal to the head of state to use the occasion to make some pronouncements and take decisions on crucial national problems which would further endear him to Nigerians, and Nigeria to the international community.″

The pope’s second trip to Nigeria brings him to a country different from the land flush with oil revenue that he visited in 1982. Nigeria is mired in crime and tension and faces international scorn over its dismal human rights record.

Abacha’s regime was denounced worldwide in 1995 after the execution of dissident author Ken Saro-Wiwa. In the weeks leading up to the pontiff’s visit, dozens of government opponents and pro-democracy activists were thrown in jail or harassed, Human Rights Watch said.

The Vatican said Nigerian authorities have promised to consider the request, which it described as ``an act of clemency on humanitarian grounds.″

Tansi, the beatified priest, was honored for his holiness and commitment to the priesthood, on a continent where such a celibate life is often disparaged. Beatification is the final step before possible sainthood; Tansi would become the first Nigerian saint.

The pope, seeking to encourage his church throughout Africa, called the priest ``a prime example of the fruits of holiness″ which have grown in Africa since the early missionaries.

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