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How an African Pope Could Fight the Spread of Islamic Extremism

Fueling the fire of conversion and stoking pride of non-Christians alike could make al-Qaeda's entrenchment efforts harder in key regions.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

March 8, 2013 - 7:04 pm

When the College of Cardinals enters the conclave on Tuesday, more than the future of the Roman Catholic Church and its 1.1 billion worldwide adherents hangs in the balance.

The 115 diverse princes of the Church will begin a series of balloting to choose the next pope from among their own. Joseph Ratzinger was selected in 2005 as a transition figure to ease the church through the passing of John Paul II and move it forward, though Vatican watchers were buzzing then about the possibility of picking a head of the Holy See from outside Europe.

If the conclave reached south of Europe for Benedict XVI’s successor, it would be a move that could throw a roadblock in front of the spread of Islamic extremism in Africa.

Africa’s population of 158 million Catholics is growing by leaps and bounds, something assuredly not lost on Islamists in the north as they seek a safe haven and staging ground — and, as chillingly seen in Mali, a place to impose Sharia on the unwilling.

Al-Qaeda has had exceptional luck in forging alliances and building strong affiliations here. But a mobilization of the continent’s Christians — with the election of an African pope massively fueling the fire of conversion and stoking pride of non-Christians alike — could make the Islamists’ entrenchment all the more difficult at some critical face-off points, such as Nigeria and South Sudan.

It wouldn’t be just a matter of faith vs. faith, though: Even much of the Muslim population in North Africa have little tolerance for the brutal extremists who come trampling through their towns to impose Sharia. Timbuktu, the ancient city at the edge of the Sahara in Mali, is home to three great mud-brick mosques from its golden age as a center of Islamist scholarship and houses tens of thousands of priceless manuscripts in its libraries. Yet this central point of Islam only suffered under its 10-month occupation by Islamist militants.

Hellbent on turning northern Mali into an Islamist state, rebels teamed with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to overrun the mysterious city. Ancient mausoleums, monuments and Islamic texts were destroyed, and those residents who didn’t flee were beaten for watching television or smoking. Women were forced to veil and music was banned.

In short, Timbuktu as they knew it was no longer. And the 94 percent Muslim country hailed the help of nearly 90 percent Christian France in pushing the Islamists back toward Algeria. Timbuktu celebrated by turning on the music, putting on short skirts, and hanging makeshift French flags to thank their liberators.

In Nigeria, which is 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, Boko Haram has been ferociously attacking churches and mosques that are seen as opposing the militants’ Sharia aims. Meanwhile, the world’s largest seminary is in Nigeria and seminaries across the country are so full they’ve had to turn away candidates.

Al-Shabaab has chucked grenades at churchgoers in Kenya. Islamist militants in Tanzania have destroyed churches.

“Christians on the frontiers of the world, in the trenches of the world, as has been noted in African countries and also in the Middle East, are a factor of balance, of reconciliation and of unity and not of conflict,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in April after 21 Christians were killed in attacks in Nigeria and Kenya.

And yet this ground zero where Islamic extremists are determined to establish deep roots would get a supercharge of faith, hope, and pride from the election of an African pope.

What would this translate to? For starters, an even larger Christian population. A more fervent population less tolerant of the Islamists’ Sharia plans as now they have a personal stake in the future of the Church. More investment — either private or from Rome — in the social services and community-building backbones that are currently compensating for toothless governments, thus fighting the blight that nourishes extremism.

And obviously church and politics aren’t immune from mixing, as seen with the protracted secession fight of predominantly Christian South Sudan from Muslim Sudan. This fight is far from over — in addition to disputed border regions, the Sudanese government is harassing Christians and destroying church buildings in an attempt to purify the country. One of the cardinals who will be electing the next pope, Archbishop of Khartoum Gabriel Zubeir Wako, escaped an assassination attempt in 2010 when an Islamist wielding a dagger charged the altar during Sunday Mass.

With every cardinal in the running come the first round of balloting, Zubeir included, what would be the options for an African pope?

Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze was favored as a papabile choice in 2005, but is now 80 years old. South Africa’s Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, 71, is a no-holds-barred defender of Church orthodoxy who has been outspoken about the Vatican’s lack of attention to Africa. Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, 73, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a vocal defender of human rights who can passably speak 14 languages. Cardinal Robert Sarah, 67, of Guinea leads the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and is a staunch conservative. Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan, 69, is a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Oft-mentioned as a front-runner is Ghanian Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, current president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who has already irked liberals by showing a video on shifting Muslim demographics in Europe in a presentation last year.

“The point was not to be anti-Islam. Absolutely not! The point was to highlight the demographic situation as a result of the anti-life tendency and culture in the Western world where, as I see it, there is a great need to apply the values of the Kingdom of God and of the Gospel to the social order,” Turkson told La Stampa afterward. “I showed the video to illustrate this reality in the Western world and to emphasize that if we do not evangelize the social order, it is capable of giving rise to all kinds of problems for society.”

Cardinals will be weighing matters of Church administration, doctrine, ecclesiastic outreach, and 21st century challenges in the conclave. But one hopes that the potential world-changing impact of a leader who would be a rallying point on this battleground continent will cross the cardinals’ minds, as well.

Bridget Johnson is a veteran journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.

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All Comments   (10)
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All it would take is a Pope with the courage to call a spade a spade. With the balls to name islam for the evil it is.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Universalism of the RCC shows itself in modern times. In the West, the cradle of the Church, the Church has morphed into a feminized institution where homosexuality, tolerance for sin, and heterodoxy reigns. In Africa and parts of Europe, orthodoxy still reigns. The future of the Church lies in orthodoxy to the universal message of the Gospel, Christ's love, and Holy Tradition. Whether that message comes out of Africa, Asia, or Europe doesn't matter. No one nation can claim that.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I like the Cardinal from the Philippines, Luis T., because he is also a member of the Doctrine of the the Faith and has zero tolerance for the child abuse. Determined to rid the church of it. He also has the quality of joy and celebration. Turkson sounds good in this article.
That Turkson seems to get this and get the seriousness of the moment is hopeful. That Cardinal Luis T. seems to understand the need for joy and celebration is hopeful, for letting people know that God loves them. We need someone who can really reach people. Luis T. seems to have that gift. But we really need a spiritual warrior. We deal with Powers and Principalities and our culture is underestimating them. I'll be praying for the conclave.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What would happen, if said Pope is beheaded by islam, will all of Africa become a victory for that vile cult?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Tell me again. How many divisions does the Pope have?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How long did the Soviet Union last?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Enough with race already. The more you use that the more you slam a window on your own head.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
well said. There's few people so obsessed with race as Americans.

We don't need a black pope, an American pope, an African pope, an Asian pope, a white pope, a purple pope, or one who comes from the moon. We need one who undoes the decades of self-destruction the Catholic church has engaged itself in in an effort to appear "conciliatory" with other religions and "apologise" for the sins of a few of its priests (instead those should have been stripped of their vestments and thrown to the tender mercies of the crowds).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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