Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson talks to the Associated Press during an interview, in Rome.

London -

The first shot in the battle to succeed Benedict XVI was fired by an African candidate for the Papacy on Tuesday.

Cardinal Peter Turkson said ‘young churches’ of Africa and Asia were ready to provide worldwide leadership for Roman Catholicism.

The intervention came just 24 hours after Benedict’s surprise retirement announcement, and signalled an open struggle for the succession between the European establishment and the fast-growing Catholic churches of the southern hemisphere.

Cardinal Turkson, a 64-year-old Ghanaian, said he was willing to serve as Pope himself “if it is the will of God”.

The Cardinal, who has headed the Vatican office on international peace and justice for the past four years, said that African and Asian churches have produced “mature clergymen and prelates that are capable of exercising leadership also of this world institution”.

He said that although the churches of the south had been “growing exponentially” under European Popes, a Pope from the south “would go a long way to strengthen them in their resolve”.

Cardinal Turkson’s comments open up a rivalry between the European favourites to succeed Benedict and candidates from Africa, Asia and Latin American, whose churches are perceived as strong and growing at a time when Catholics are under pressure in their historic strongholds.

Liberal complaints about gay rights and the status of women have combined with sex abuse scandals to put a question mark over loyalty to the church and its leadership in Europe and America. Congregations are also seen to be falling as Catholics lose faith in much of Europe and America.

The Ghanaian cardinal, who would be the first ever black Pope if elected by March’s conclave, said: “I think in a way the church is always and has forever been ready for a non-European Pope.”

Cardinal Turkson added that it was vital for the church to restore its authority in the wake of sex scandals. “Being the Pope of the church is not going to be an easy task,” he said.

“We need to repair our credibility. Our pastors need to be believed in again and recognised and taken seriously.”

“If we say we are celibate clergy, we need to live faithfully to that celibacy. There is one thing we cannot compromise on and that is our credibility.” - Daily Mail