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Pope Arrives in Ivory Coast to Consecrate World’s Largest Church

September 9, 1990

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Pope John Paul II arrived Sunday to consecrate the biggest Christian church in the world, a basilica that rivals the grandeur of St. Peter’s. Oppponents say the country can’t afford it.

Heavy security was in place around Yamoussoukro, the native town of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, to prevent anti-government demonstrations by recently legalized opposition parties.

Architect Pierre Fakhoury defended construction of the church in a country where Roman Catholics are estimated to make up less than 15 percent of the 10 million people. Most of the people are animists and Moslems.

″The president swore he would give God the biggest and most beautiful church he could,″ he told reporters.

On Thursday, police fired tear gas and used truncheons to break up an attempt by opposition leaders to stage a peaceful march in Abidjan, 150 miles south of here. A British Broadcasting Corp. television team that tried to meet with opposition leaders was briefly detained Sunday.

Houphouet-Boigny has ruled this nation as a one-party state since independence from France in 1960.

The pope met with the president at his residence Sunday evening.

Among the dignitaries who were to attend the Monday morning consecration were South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha, French Cooperation Minister Jacques Pelletier and Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son and counselor of President Francois Mitterrand.

Cardinals and bishops from 18 African nations and about 350,000 people also were to attend the consecration of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, which towers over this small town 150 miles north of Abidjan.

The Ivorian League of Human Rights charged Sunday that authorities had forced thousands of villagers to come to Yamoussoukro for the service.

The consecration ceremony will end a 10-day papal tour of four African nations, during which the pope has called for a narrowing of the economic gap between the continent’s urban elite and rural poor.

Earlier Sunday, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the Polish-born pope prayed to ″the Virgin Mary, queen of peace,″ appealing for her intercession to bring peace to the world, particularly in the Persian Gulf.

A Rwandan government official publicly challenged the pontiff on the church’s attitude to AIDS, celibacy and sainthood of Africans.

Christophe Mfizi, Rwanda’s state information director, said doctors were hard pressed to defend Catholic bans on birth control in nations facing a population problem and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

John Paul initially declined to visit the basilica in Yamoussoukro, but accepted the invitation after Houphouet-Boigny agreed to build a hospital nearby and grant the Catholic Church permission to open a radio station.

Houphouet-Boigny, a Catholic, has said he paid for the construction of the basilica with his own money.

But opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo has questioned how the president, a former cocoa farmer, could afford to pay for a basilica on the scale of St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Government opponents have accused Houphouet-Boig ny of stealing state funds.

The government says the basilica cost $140 million, but other estimates have put its cost as high as $250 million.

Gbagbo, a Catholic, has promised not to organize demonstrations. ″We will not disturb this visit, but the pope should know that the visit disturbs our faith,″ he said.

Bishops have told other priests that they are not obliged to attend the consecration, according to church sources.

The basilica was built between 1985 and 1989, years of hardship for Ivorians as the country’s economy nearly collapsed because of slumping world prices for cocoa, the main export.

Fakhoury, an Ivorian of Lebanese descent, said the church is bigger than St. Peter’s, on which it is modeled. St. Peter’s had been considered the largest church in the Christian world.

The basilica looms up from a 320-acre site carved out of a former cocoa plantation owned by Houphouet-Boigny. At its tip it is 525 feet high, compared with 452 feet at the top of the cross on the dome of St. Peter’s.

Sixty artisans, painters and cutters from 14 countries worked on the 15,000 panels of stained glass - more than exist in all of France.

The basilica seats 7,000 people and another 11,000 standing. The entire grounds can accommodate more than 350,000 worshipers.

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