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2004 -- Nigeria's year

2004 -- Nigeria's year

News Analysis

UPI Religion Writer

The following question is of course highly speculative and may sound slightly off the wall, but it still makes some sense: Could 2004 be a Nigerian year? Consider the following: Chances are that pope John Paul II, who is very ill and tired, will not last for another 12 months. Who will take his place?

One of the likely prospects is Cardinal Francis Arinze, 71, an Ibo from Nigeria and now prefect of the Vatican's Congregation on Divine worship. He is tough, energetic knows how to handle youth -- and most importantly perhaps - - is an expert on Islam.

Then consider another branch of Christianity -- the Anglicans. The most powerful traditionalist voice is that of archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of the Anglican province of Nigeria with 17 million-18 million faithful.

His see, Abuja, may well become the Canterbury of the 21st century, just as Constantinople once proclaimed itself the second and Moscow the third Rome. As conjecture in Anglican circles goes, the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will continue to waffle on the crisis in the Episcopal Church USA.

But time is running out. Ten out of the 11 African primates want to cut ties with the tiny American offshoot of Anglicanism, or at least the diocese of t he first openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson. Most Asians and Latin Americans feel the same way. And Peter Jensen, archbishop of Sydney in Australia, has already mused aloud about the possibility of shifting his allegiance from Canterbury to Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

Akinola has already made clear that he will not let Americas' wealth persuade him to make doctrinal concessions to what he considers the Western heresies.

In other words, there'll be a split in world Anglicanism.

Now let's guess on: Nigeria is not only home to two of the most powerful Christian prelates involved in the lesser clash of cultures -- the one pitting Scripture against false doctrine. Nigeria is also the place where the big culture war is being fought -- the conflict between radical Islam and Christianity, both growing rapidly.

Chances are, then, that Nigeria may become the main focus of religion reporters in the New Year -- or perhaps not. To begin with, nobody can predict when the pope will die, and who will take his place. Given the Church's 2,000-year history it is very likely that after the polish pope's 25-year reign, it will once again be an Italian's turn.

It could be that Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna will succeed him, or Cardinal Phillippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon and a man of great personal holiness, or maybe even the ageing Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the German prefect of the Pontifical Congregation for the doctrine of Faith, who might bring theological order back into the Roman Church.

Or it could be anybody. Suffice it to say the biggest religion story of 2004 will presumably come from Rome, and that five things can be considered a given about the new man on St. Peter's throne:

1. He is a disciplinarian, which John Paul II is not, which accounts for a considerable theological chaos in the Church.

2. He has John Paul's passion for the young.

3. He is, like John Paul, able to garner the respect of representative of other faiths, especially Islam.

4. He shares his commitment to ecumenism, without which it would be hard t o accomplish the next pontiff's perhaps most important task:

5. He must continue John Paul's strategy of re-evangelizing Europe and thus strengthen the Christian Church against the potential onslaught of Islamic radicalism.

There are many small signs pointing to Europe's slow spiritual recovery: There is the fact that 70 percent of the new ordinands in the Church of England are evangelical. There is the reawakening of Christian intellectual life in France -- and the missionary zeal of the Catholic and Protestant churches in that most secularized of all European nations.

There is substantial evidence for a reawakening of religious interests in Germany, where pastors suddenly rank second-highest in the public's estimation of various professions, and where on regional television religious programs are the most popular. Another sign is that the American feature film "Luther" is a resounding success in the land of Luther, where only 20 years ago Protestant theologians called the Reformer passe.

These developments tend to be subtle -- less obvious than bloody acts of terrorism committed by terrorists in the name of Islam, or conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims dominating the television news from Iraq.

But for the moment, sociologists of religion from both sides of the Atlantic agree, it looks as if in 2004 vibrant Christianity will be the most powerful faith in the world. Meanwhile, Islam may well provide bigger headlines, but has yet to find the ground it has lost 1,000 years ago.

Unless, of course, you consider militant Islamism the true voice of that religion. In that case, most Christian, Muslim and Jewish theologians would beg to disagree.


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