VATICAN (CWN) -- Arriving in Nigeria on Friday, March 21, Pope John Paul II began his three-day visit to Africa's most populous country by commenting on his "profound concern" for Nigeria in particular and "for Africa in general."

      In his first address at the airport, the Holy Father called for "honest and joint efforts to promote harmony and national unity, to guarantee respect for human life and human rights, to promote justice and development, to combat hunger, to give hope to the poor and suffering, to resolve conflicts through dialogue, and to create a real and lasting solidarity among all sectors of society." He continued to elaborate on that theme throughout his weekend stay.

      President Sani Abacha warmly greeted the Pontiff at the airport (dressed in traditional attire rather than his customary military uniform), and said it was an "immense honor" for Nigeria to host the Pope. In his welcoming remarks Abacha insisted that the country offers equality for Muslims and Christians. But the Pope kept his distance from Abacha, whose regime has been widely condemned for human-rights abuses and especially for failure to allow open elections.

      When he met privately with Abacha on Friday evening, the Pope asked for the liberation of political prisoners. At the same time, in a meeting with the Nigerian foreign-affairs minister Tom Ikimi, Cardinal Angelo Sodano presented a list of 60 prisoners for whom the Holy See sought clemency. The Nigerian government reportedly "welcomed" the list, promising to study it and respond promptly.

      The Vatican declined to identify the individuals on the list, saying only that their names were "already known in public opinion." Informed sources said that the list had been prepared upon the basis of reports from the families of individuals who have been detained, other governments, and international organizations. It is believed-- but not confirmed-- that one name on the list is that of Moshood Abiola, the former presidential candidate, who was arrested in June 1994 and whose wife was assassinated in 1996.

      In his homily during a Saturday Mass in Onitsha, in the south of Nigeria, the Pope explicitly condemned the human-rights abuses of the Abacha regime. He spoke of the urgent need to correct "all that offends the dignity of man and the rights of man." Although he did not explicitly name the Abacha regime, the Pope left no one in doubt of his meaning when he said that there is "no place for intimidation and oppression of the poor and weak, for the arbitrary exclusion of individuals and groups from political life, and for the abuse of power and authority."

      The most important focus of the Pope's trip to Nigeria was the beatification of Father Michael Tansi, who died in 1964. The first Nigerian native to be beatified, Blessed Michael Tansi worked as a priest in his native land, and became especially involved in efforts to set up Catholic schools, before becoming a Trappist monk. The Pope cited him as an example for today's Nigerians: a pioneer on the road to progress through reconciliation.

      Before concluding his second apostolic voyage to Nigeria, the Pope also met with the delegation of Muslim leaders, headed by Sultan Maccido de Socoto. (Muslims compose roughly 50 percent of Nigeria's population; Christians are 40 percent.) In a friendly exchange of greetings, the Pope told the Muslim group: "We share faith in one merciful God, who will judge men at the end of time." He called for an increase in collaboration between the two faiths.

      "Respect for every human person-- in all his dignity, with all his rights-- should always be the main basis of your efforts to strengthen democracy and reinforce the fabric of society," John Paul told the people of Nigeria in the last message of his weekend trip. The Pope issued a special call to the Christians of Nigeria, to take up their responsibility in the country's development, encouraging a peaceful transition to more democratic rule.

      The Holy Father presided at a Mass in the capital city of Abuja, attended by an estimated 700,000 people. Despite temperatures in the 90s, the Pontiff maintained his strength throughout a three-hour outdoor ceremony-- as indeed he showed no signs of flagging despite the steamy weather that prevailed throughout his stay in the equatorial country.

      At mid-afternoon today, the Pope boarded the plane which will bring him back to Rome for a late-evening arrival. Before the final farewell ceremony at the airport, he had lunch with the bishops of Nigeria, and asked them to lead the drive for a just, peaceful society, in which many ethnic and religious groups live in harmony. He referred to Africa in general, and Nigeria in particular, as a "family of nations," and said that as with a human family, each member should care for the needs of others-- particularly those who are most in need.

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March 24, 1998 volume 9, no. 59         DAILY CATHOLIC