Pope Ends African Tour by Blessing Big ‘Basilica in the Bush’
YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Pope John Paul II ended a tour of four African nations Monday by blessing a huge basilica criticized as needlessly opulent in this land of economic scarcity.
The consecration of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the birthplace of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny was one of the high points of the pope’s 10- day trip to Africa. Later in the day, the pontiff flew on to Rome, arriving in his Air Afrique DC-10 at 11:50 p.m.
In Yamoussoukro, Houphouet-Boigny’s hometown, tight security was in place to prevent anti-government demonstrations by recently legalized opposition parties during the papal visit.
Houphouet-Boigny, who has ruled the country as a one-party state since independence from France in 1960, offered the basilica as a gift to the pope during a private audience last year at the Vatican.
Cost estimates range from $140 million to $300 million for the basilica, which was packed to capacity for the consecration Mass. In the plaza outside, tens of thousands of pilgrims followed the service on television monitors and loudspeakers.
Organizers had indicated they expected up to 350,000 people, but some may have been discouraged by the armed soldiers stationed in and around the city.
There were no major incidents. But police clubbed some people in the crush of worshipers pushing out of the basilica after the pope left, news photographers said.
The cost of the basilica, which was completed last year, has been a source of controversy in this once-prosperous West African nation now suffering its worst economic crisis in 30 years of independence.
At the start of the consecration Mass, a senior Vatican official delivered a strong defense of the basilica.
″Africa rejoices to have such a place to worship God,″ said Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who heads the Vatican office on inter-religous dialogue.
In his homily, the Polish-born pope, too, appeared to defend the right of Africans to their own basilica. ″During all ages and on all continents, the sons of the church have dedicated the best of their art″ to their faith, he said.
The colossal church, rising out of a former cocoa plantation owned by the president in this town of 70,000, bears a striking resemblance to St. Peter’s in Rome with its imposing dome and long arms of marble columns surrounding a plaza.
The basilica, set on a 320-acre site, is 525 feet high at its tip, compared with 452 feet at the top of the cross on the dome of St. Peter’s. The basilica has 15,000 panels of hand-blown French stained glass.
The basilica seats 7,000 people and another 11,000 standing. The entire grounds can accommodate more than 350,000 worshipers.
Its architect, Pierre Fakhoury, has described the new basilica as the biggest church in Christendom. Vatican officials, however, said they believed St. Peter’s is larger.
Houphouet-Boigny says the basilica cost $140 million, was built on his own land and was paid for with his family’s money.
But published reports have said the price tag could be as high as $300 million, and the president’s opponents accused him of misappropriating state money for the project.
Whatever the cost, critics have said the money would have been better spent on education and health care for the poor.
The Vatican issued a written statement that appeared aimed at deflecting the criticism and underlining the social benefits of the church. At the pope’s request, a hospital and other assistance projects will be built on the grounds.
The statement said Houphouet-Boigny had made available money for the maintenance of the complex, which will also include a radio station and university offices.
The site will be managed by the Our Lady of Peace International Foundation, under Vatican control.
″In accepting the donation and in establishing the Our Lady of Peace Foundation, the Holy Father wishes to contribute to the good of Ivorians and other Africans,″ the Vatican statement said.
During the Mass, the pope sat on a throne-like chair under a brocaded canopy rising nine stories above the altar.
Houphouet-Boigny, who converted to Catholicism in his youth, hopes the basilica will become a pilgrimage center for Africa’s 75 million faithful. About 10 percent of Ivory Coast’s 10 million residents are Catholics, with one-fourth Moslems and most of the rest animists.
The pope’s seventh trip to Africa also included stops in Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.