Lagos - Pope Benedict XVI's resignation has sparked calls for his successor to come from Africa, home to the world's fastest-growing population and the front line of key issues facing the Roman Catholic Church.
Around 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live in Africa and the percentage has expanded significantly in recent years in comparison to other parts of the world.
Much of the Catholic Church's recent growth has come in the developing world, with the most rapid expansions in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Names such as Ghana's Peter Turkson and Nigerian John Onaiyekan have been mentioned as potential papal material, as has Francis Arinze, also from Nigeria and considered a possibility when Benedict was elected, but who is now 80.
Some analysts see the issue as one of justice since Africa has contributed to the Catholic Church to such a large degree, as well as a reflection of a changing world.
“I think that, with the black community's representation in the larger Catholic community, it is legitimate that we have a black pope,” said Rene Legre Hokou, head of the Ivory Coast League of Human Rights.
“An African pope could give more vitality to the Catholic Church in the black world. It would demonstrate the universal character of the religion.”
A number of African Catholic Church members had a mixed view however, saying they would like to see a fellow African elected pope, but wanted the most qualified person, no matter where he is from.
Pat Utomi, a prominent Catholic in Nigeria who is an economist and former presidential candidate, said he would take pride in seeing an African elected, “but we must take that away”.
“I think what matters is the right person with the vision for the moment,” Utomi said.
At the same time, he said Africa in several ways was representative of major challenges facing the Church, particularly its relationship with an evangelical movement with explosive growth on the continent as well as with Islam.
“I think in some ways a John Paul II was a response to the Soviet Union,” Utomi said. “In some ways the challenge of the Church must be to reach an accommodation… an understanding with Islam and the Pentecostal movement.”
Africans have flocked to evangelical religions, with many seeing them as more relevant to their daily lives, posing a challenge to the Catholic Church.
Also in countries like Nigeria, roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south, religious and ethnic tensions have led to violence.
Onaiyekan, nominated as a cardinal in October and also the archbishop of the Nigerian capital Abuja, has made efforts to foster unity between Christians and Muslims in his country.
“It would take a skilled leader of the church - in the kind of way that a John Paul II reached out to the Eastern church, to the Orthodox churches of the east,” Utomi said.
Vatican watchers say the college of cardinals may seize the moment to elect a Latin-American, African or Asian pope.
Others say 85-year-old Benedict - who is resigning for age reasons - may call on the cardinals to elect someone younger, who is less likely to suffer failing health early in his mandate.
Benedict visited Africa twice, most recently the West African nation of Benin in 2011, while before that Angola and Cameroon in 2009. His Benin visit came 150 years after what is considered the evangelisation of the country by missionaries.
Archbishop of Lagos Alfred Adewale Martins said Benedict should be lauded for his efforts in Africa.
“I believe he is one man that we should be grateful to God for the attitude to the church in general and also the solicitude that he has demonstrated in very many ways to the church in Africa in particular,” said Martins.
But Benedict's outreach on the continent notwithstanding, there were still doubts over whether an African would be put at the head of the Vatican.
At Saint Antonio da Polana Church in the Mozambique capital Maputo after Benedict's announcement, parishioner Zeb Renardo said he did not think the time had come.
“I will say categorically that I doubt we will have an African pope,” he said. “I think the moment hasn't come for us to see an African pope.”
But the rector at Ivory Coast's Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, a semi-replica of St Peter's in Rome and the largest Christian shrine in Africa, said “why not a non-Western pope?”
“The world is now multi-colour,” Polish priest Stanislaw Skuza said. - AFP
How a pope is elected
* Roman Catholic cardinals seeking a successor to Pope Benedict XVI will hold a conclave to elect a new pontiff.
* Only cardinals are eligible to take part and it will continue until a successor is chosen.
* They will meet in the Vatican’s ornate Sistine Chapel and hold two voting rounds a day until they choose a new pope.
* They were traditionally locked into the chapel - best known for the frescoed ceiling and altar wall painted by Michelangelo - and not allowed out until they chose a new pontiff.
* They had to sleep in makeshift cells and share minimal sanitary facilities.
* But new regulations issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996 allow them to live in a new hotel behind St Peter’s Basilica and even take walks in the tiny state’s peaceful gardens between voting rounds.
* Another reform lets the cardinals opt for a simple majority vote if they have not succeeded in electing a pope after two weeks.
* Most modern conclaves last only a few days.
* When the cardinals are in agreement, the chosen one will say ‘accepto’, a puff of white smoke will emerge from the chimney, bells will toll and a cardinal will appear at the central window of St Peter’s Basilica to declare ‘habemus papam’ (‘we have a pope’). - The Mercury