Johannesburg — NIGERIA'S newly appointed cardinal has expressed caution on the chances of a fellow African churchman succeeding the ailing John Paul II to become the Roman Catholic Church's first black pope.
The promotion of the Archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Okogie, and the failing health of the current Pope have revived interest in the prospects of Nigeria's other cardinal, Francis Arinze.
Arinze was made a cardinal in 1985 and has risen to become the fourth most senior Vatican official, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. He has been tipped as a possible future pope.
But Okogie, at a news conference before leaving for Rome, said no one could predict how he and his colleagues would vote when called on to select the Pope's successor.
"They may have their own groups - an English group, an American group, a French group, perhaps an African," he told reporters. "The bottom line is always the Holy Spirit. The spirit must come."
However, he added: "I think in this election, Nigeria will have a place of prominence."
The conclave, the 135-strong group of cardinals under 80 years of age who are eligible to vote on the papacy, will convene in the Sistine Chapel in Rome after John Paul II's death to choose one of their number.
"Nigeria now has two candidates to vote and be voted for the position of pope. The more candidates you have, the brighter your chances at the conclave," spokesman for the Nigerian church, the Rev Father Emmanuel Badejo told AFP.
But in a controversial interview with German news magazine Bunte - parts of which have since been disputed - leading German cardinal Josef Ratzinger said the time was not yet right for an African pope to be named.
Arinze is 70 years old and was born in a village near the southern Nigerian city of Onitsha. According to local reports, his parents believed in African spirit magic, but Arinze was baptised a Catholic.
Arinze rose to become archbishop of Onitsha before leaving Nigeria to take up administrative and diplomatic duties for the church in the Curia, the Vatican's "government" in Rome.
The Pope's secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, has played down concerns about the ailing 83-year-old John Paul. But A P quoted the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, as saying: "The entire world is experiencing a Pope who is sick, who is disabled and who is dying - I don't know how near death he is - who is approaching the last days and months of his life."
A spokesman for Schoenborn, who is considered to be a possible papal candidate, later said the comments were "to be interpreted philosophically". The Vatican, which generally refrains from commenting on the Pope's health, declined to respond to the Austrian cardinal's remarks.
Since the mid-1990s, John Paul has been battling Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder, and crippling knee and hip ailments.
Meanwhile, in Lagos, our correspondent Festus Eriye reports that Okogie remains one of Nigeria's most controversial and outspoken public figures.
Religious tensions between Muslims and Christians are never far from the surface there, and he has often fuelled those tensions.
In the 1980s, for example, he had a bitter public clash with an Islamic cleric, Sheik Abubakar Gumi, who had declared: "Nigerian unity can only come by trying to convert Christians and non-Muslims [to Islam], until the other religions become a minority, and do not affect our society. Once you are a Muslim, you cannot choose a non-Muslim to be your leader. If Christians do not accept Muslims as their leaders, we have to divide the country."
An enraged Okogie responded: "We just want to keep Nigeria going because of peace. But if anyone tries any nonsense this time. . . I don't care, we will burn the nation. "
This exchange sparked a months-long national debate.
Okogie has also attacked the country's rapidly expanding Pentecostal churches.
"Empty barrels, they say, make the greatest noise," he once described them.
"Some will tell you they work miracles. These things are not meant for advertisement. Even in the time of our Lord Himself, he never put out billboards to say, 'I am going to work miracles . . . His good works followed him.' "
He has also expressed disapproval of the rise of the charismatic movement within the Catholic C hurch - especially when it came to dancing during services.
As he put it, "You can move your legs - right and centre. But not coming to raise your legs and be shouting, 'Hey! Hey!' That is rubbish! " -