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African cardinals are frontrunners for Vatican vacancy

POTENTIAL POPES: Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson (left) and Cardinal Francis Arinze

FOLLOWING THE shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI as the leader of the Catholic faith, speculation has arisen that his replacement could be black.

Benedict, 85, announced on February 11 that he would be stepping down from the role due to health concerns.

The move makes him the first to resign as pope in more than 600 years.

Two African cardinals, or official advisors to the pope – Peter Appiah Turkson, 64, of Ghana, and 80-year-old Igbo Nigerian Francis Arinze – are being tipped as the hot favourites to become the 266th pope.

In 2009, Turkson was appointed president of the Vatican's justice and peace office. The high-profile job helped cement Turkson's position as a possible future papal candidate.

Arinze, in 1965, became the Roman Catholic’s youngest ever bishop and was one of the cardinal electors who participated in the 2005 papal conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.

At the time of the announcement, Turkson was quoted saying there was no reason there couldn’t be a black Pope. He pointed to fellow Ghanaian Kofi Annan, who broke the mould to become general secretary of the UN, and Barack Obama had been elected US president.

Speaking this week, he said: “A pope from Africa, Latin America or Asia would bring a large amount of joy. When I returned to Ghana after becoming a cardinal, it was to a state welcome with the President and his wife in a motorcade from Accra to Cape Coast. If any African became pope, this would be multiplied exponentially. It would be a big celebration.

“The chances are very real.”

MEN OF GOD: Cardinal Francis Arinze and Pope Benedict XVI

Many have echoed his sentiments, and consider the appointment of a pope with African heritage as a natural fit with the church’s goal of leading the charge against global issues including poverty in developing countries.

Obianuju Ekeocha, who is a speaker for Catholic Voices – the company that ensure that Catholic idealisms are voiced in interviews and debates – told The Voice that the Catholic Church would welcome an African Pope.

“We are very comfortable with the Pope being from anywhere including Africa,” said Ekeocha.

“In Africa everyone has come to understand that within the Catholic Church you’re brothers and sisters. You can be white, Chinese, Asian – you can be from anywhere.

“We want to see priests from all over the world and call them ‘Father’ no matter the colour of their skin.”

But while Ekeocha believes the church is ready for a black Pope, she said she could not speak for the rest of society.

“The rest of the church? Yes. The rest of the world? I’m not sure. But as far as the Catholic Church is concerned we’re ready for a Pope from anywhere.

“Whether the rest of the world is ready to see that, I cannot speak for them,” she added.

Nigeria-born Ekeocha, who works as haemotologist and resides in Canterbury, Kent, believes the next Pope “will have to face the changes that are happening around the world while upholding the teachings of the church”.

Rosie Bairwal, national coordinator for the London-based Catholic Associaton for Racial Justice (CARJ) which aims to address racism in the church and society, said the decision was in the hands of the 120 elector cardinals.

They are set to make the decision before Easter.

Bairwal said: “They will be looking for the best person who has the skills to lead the church. They spend a lot of time thinking and praying very deeply over who the Holy Spirit is leading them to select at this time.

“For us, we see racism as a sin and we try to address that and it is true we haven’t yet had a pope that has come from outside Europe. This year we have many good candidates from Africa, Latin America and Asia. I’m sure that if a pope from a particular part of the world will be encouraged to see a pope from their country; a degree of national pride. But whoever will be appointed, will be the pope for every Catholic.”

An Office for National Statistics report from 2010 shows that while African and Caribbean communities make up 1.8 per cent of the British population, together they reflect 4.2 per cent of the UK's Catholic community.

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