Nigerians flock to pope's Mass
March 22, 1998
Web posted at: 1:51 p.m. EDT (1351 GMT)
ONITSHA, Nigeria (CNN) -- One of Nigeria's most revered
Christian figures, ascetic monk Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi,
was beatified Sunday by Pope John Paul II at a special Mass.
During the ceremony at the Oba airfield near Onitsha, the
center of Nigerian Catholicism, the pope urged Nigerians to
heed Tansi's way of life.
"He sought to reconcile his fellow countrymen with God and
with one another," the pope told about 2 million people who
gathered in 100-degree Fahrenheit (38 C) heat to hear him
Beatification is the final step before possible Roman
Catholic sainthood, and Tansi, who died in 1964, would be the
first Nigerian saint.
The Vatican credits Tansi with one documented miracle: A
Nigerian woman recovered from seemingly terminal cancer when
she touched Tansi's coffin as his body was returned to
Onitsha in 1986 from a British abbey where he was a monk.
The pope also urged Nigeria's brutal military regime to
embrace rather than persecute its citizens.
"All Nigerians must work to rid society of everything that
offends the dignity of the human person, or violates human
rights," the pope said. "There can be no place for
intimidation and domination of the poor and the weak."
Crowds gather before dawn
Starting before dawn, hundreds of thousands of people in
crowded buses, motorbikes and on foot converged on the
airfield. Many of them wore clothes made of purple, yellow
and white commemorative cloth, with images of the pope and
One after another, people praised the pope and urged him to
help free their country from Gen. Sani Abacha's military
regime and 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, scores of
government opponents and pro-democracy activists were thrown
in jail or harassed, said the group Human Rights Watch.
"My prayers are that he will bring us peace," said Ugwuanyi
Evenin, 23, who walked 10 miles with her father to see the
pope. "This is twice he comes to Nigeria; that means he
likes the Nigerian people."
The pope's three-day tour is meant only to be a pastoral
visit, not an official trip.
But the pope arrived Saturday in Nigeria's federal capital,
Abuja, to a full ceremonial welcome, including military
cannon salutes and greetings from hundreds of schoolchildren
waving national flags. Abacha greeted the pope before the
two moved to a sheltered dais for short public speeches.
Pope wants prisoners freed
Abacha, 54, a Muslim northerner, seized power in 1993 after
annulling election results. He is expected to run in new
elections he has promised for August 1. Of five political
parties approved to put forward presidential candidates, four
want Abacha as their candidate.
On Saturday, the pope appealed to him to grant clemency to 60
political detainees from a list compiled by the Civil
Liberties Organization, a Lagos-based group.
The Vatican revealed none of the names on the list, saying
only that they were well known. Nigeria's most prominent
prisoners include millionaire businessman Moshood Abiola,
widely believed to have won the 1993 election, and former
military ruler Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.
Although Abacha did not agree to free anyone on the list, the
Vatican said he promised to study the request and give "an
appropriate response." After a similar appeal to Cuba's
leadership during a papal visit in January, 299 Cuban
prisoners, including more than 70 political detainees, were
Later Sunday, the pope will meet in Abuja with leaders of
Nigeria's Muslims, who comprise about 45 percent of the
population. About 10 percent of Nigeria's 115 million people
are Roman Catholic, 35 percent are members of other Christian
denominations, and the rest adhere to indigenous animist
The pope will conclude his trip with an open-air Mass in
Abuja on Monday. It is expected to attract even more people
than in Onitsha.
Reuters contributed to this report.